Disclaimers are the fine print on political ads that provide viewers and listeners with information about the purchaser of the ad. The most common disclaimer text is a simple “paid for by…”, but disclaimer rules vary radically from ad to ad and state to state. Some disclaimers require lengthy set scripts or information about donors to groups that created the ad.
Disclaimers, by definition, are a restriction on one’s free speech rights. If you buy a political ad, you are compelled to speak or write words that are not your own, but instead demanded by the government. Disclaimers take up time and space and can distract from an ad’s message. Courts have justified this First Amendment burden because the information the disclaimer is provides to the listener is supposed to be educational. In order for this benefit to be worth the First Amendment costs, disclaimers must be short, clear, and not overly burdensome to potential speakers. Disclaimers should not be employed as a cudgel to limit political speech.