Unconstitutional Contribution Limits Repealed in Maine

Lawsuit filed by the Institute for Free Speech results in quick reform

June 27, 2023   •  By IFS Staff   •    •  

An unfair and unconstitutional system that curtailed political speech rights for Maine legislators and donors alike has come to an end, thanks in part to a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Free Speech.

The Institute filed a federal suit in May on behalf of Representative Laurel Libby and others, including would-be donors, to overturn restrictions on political speech. A new law that went into effect at the beginning of the year created these restrictions, which limited certain types of political action committee (PAC) contributions and donations while leaving others untouched. The suit sought to restore equal speech rights for groups and individuals harmed by unconstitutional fundraising rules.

Specifically, the now-repealed rules established low fundraising limits for legislator-led PACs, known as “leadership PACs.” Rep. Libby heads up two such organizations: The Dinner Table PAC and the Fight for Freedom PAC.

The rules that took effect this year restricted leadership PAC contributions to just $475 per individual per year while also banning any contributions from business entities. Violating the First Amendment, these restrictions greatly limited the ability of leadership PACs to raise money to speak to the public about their issues. The limits also severely burdened the right of would-be donors to support political causes, a further First Amendment violation.

But the constitutional problems with this law extended even beyond the First Amendment to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as the rules exempted traditional PACs and so-called “caucus” PACs from the contribution limits. Caucus PACs are organizations that function like leadership PACs but are run by the four most powerful Maine legislators: the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the minority leaders in each house.

Thus, Maine’s contribution rules ran afoul of equal protection guarantees, because, unlike nearly all other Mainers—including caucus leadership—the remaining 182 Maine legislators were “less equal” because they could not establish, direct, or maintain a PAC free of highly restrictive contribution limits.

Following the filing of the lawsuit, the Maine Legislature acted quickly to eliminate the new law, with an amended bill passing overwhelmingly during an emergency legislative session. Governor Janet Mills signed the bill into law in late June. The new law restores the freedom of Mainers to donate to PACs without added restrictions that depended on who ran the PAC. It also removes the “business entity” limitation.

“The filing of this lawsuit highlighted the seriousness of the constitutional problems created by these rules and increased the legislature’s urgency around changing this law,” explained Representative Libby. “The repeal of these rules is a win for the protection of speech rights. I’m pleased that Mainers can once again fully support political causes and have their voices heard without fear of fines or other sanctions, and that lawmakers no longer must navigate an unfair, two-tiered system of political speech.”

“The former law intruded upon the First Amendment freedoms of speech and association,” said Institute for Free Speech Senior Attorney Charles Miller, co-counsel for plaintiffs. “These limits not only infringed on the rights of donors, but on the rights of advocacy groups and the people who operate them, including Representative Libby. We’re very pleased that the legislature has acted to eliminate these limits.  We filed suit in late May.  By late June, the law is no more.  This was a swift victory for free speech.”

IFS Staff

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