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Maine Right to Life Committee v. FEC


On February 15, 1996, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine ruled that the FEC's regulation at 11 CFR 100.22(b) exceeded the FEC's statutory authority because it broadened the definition of express advocacy beyond the Supreme Court's interpretation. Buckley v. Valeo and Massachusetts Citizens for Life v. FEC. This court case marked the first judicial review of the FEC's definition of express advocacy.

On October 18, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the district court decision. The appeals court said it made its ruling "for substantially the reasons set forth in the district court opinion." The appeals court also cited FEC v. Christian Action Network, where a district court, in a decision summarily affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, ruled that CAN's television and newspaper ads purchased as independent expenditures with corporate funds were not prohibited by 2 U.S.C. §441b because they contained no express advocacy.

On October 6, 1997, the Supreme Court denied the Solicitor General's request for it to hear this case.


The Maine Right to Life Committee (MRLC) is a nonprofit membership corporation established for the purpose of advocating pro-life stances. MRLC uses its funds to create and distribute a newsletter that includes discussions of federal candidates' stances on pro-life issues.

Legal analysis

The Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) contains a broad prohibition against using corporate and labor organization money in connection with a federal election. 2 U.S.C. §441b.

The Supreme Court, citing First Amendment concerns, explicitly limited the scope of §441b in its Buckley and MCFL decisions. The Court held that the ban on corporate and labor organization money could only be constitutionally applied in instances where the money is used to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for federal office. The Buckley decision listed examples of specific phrases that the Court said constituted express advocacy. The FEC incorporated this list in its definition of express advocacy at 11 CFR 100.22(a).

However, subpart (b) of 11 CFR 100.22 is based, inter alia, on the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in FEC v. Furgatch. The Furgatch case involved a communication that criticized President Carter and included the phrase: "Don't let him do it." The court held that this communication contained express advocacy and supported this conclusion by noting that the timing of the message coincided with the eve of the 1980 Presidential general election. The Court of Appeals reasoned that language may be said to expressly advocate a candidate's election or defeat if, when taken in context and with limited reference to external events, it can have no other reasonable interpretation.

District court decision

The court held that the Supreme Court's MCFL decision and a decision of the First Circuit in Faucher v. FEC supported using Buckley's list of phrases as a bright-line test to detect express advocacy. The rigid approach of a bright-line test, noted the court, avoids the chilling of free speech that occurs when the communicator is uncertain about whether or not his or her message contains express advocacy. Further, the idea that a message's content might become express advocacy as an election nears adds to the chilling effect of 11 CFR 100.22(b) on free speech.

The court recognized the difficulty the FEC faces in crafting a regulation that effectively defines express advocacy, but noted that the Buckley, Faucher and MCFL decisions required it to safeguard First Amendment interests over the interest of keeping corporate and labor organization money out of the electoral process. Based on these precedents, therefore, the court ruled that 11 CFR 100.22(b) was invalid because it defined express advocacy in broader terms than the Buckley, MCFL and Faucher decisions.

The court dismissed MRLC's other claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.

Appeals court decision

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the lower court ruling that part of the FEC's regulation defining express advocacy (11 CFR 100.22(b)) was invalid.

Supreme Court action

On October 6, 1997, the Supreme Court denied the Solicitor General's request for it to hear this case.

Source:   FEC RecordNovember 1997; December 1996; April 1996. Maine Right to Life Committee, Inc. v. FEC, 914 F. Supp. 8 (D.Me. 1996), aff'd, 98 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 52 (1997).