Our friends at the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in June of 2011 on behalf of Robin Farris, challenging Washington’s contribution limits (Farris v. Seabrook) of $800 for recall campaigns. IJ argued that because there is no opportunity for corruption in the recall attempt, the contribution limits are not constitutional. In November 2012, a U.S. District Court decided in favor of Ms. Farris and IJ.
After losing in court, Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) decided to define IJ’s pro bono legal work as in-kind political contributions, and threatened to fine Ms. Harris for not reporting the work in the recall campaign’s disclosure documents. As the Wall Street Journal points out, this move has the potential for widespread implications beyond a simple fine (Disclosure as a Political Weapon):
Such a finding is a potential killer for a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) like IJ. If free legal services can be categorized as an in-kind political contribution, IJ could lose its federal tax exemption because 501(c)(3) nonprofits are expressly prohibited from any direct engagement with political campaigns.
The same logic would apply to many tax-exempt groups that offer free help for civil-rights plaintiffs. This includes such left-learning groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Campaign Legal Center. IJ says it has identified more than 100 cases in which a nonprofit has represented someone on a campaign-finance case. Without those services, few non-wealthy Americans would have the resources to challenge campaign-finance laws that restrict speech.
The suit also reveals the overbroad nature of campaign-finance limits by attributing a political interest when none existed. The Institute for Justice had no stake or interest in the recall of Dale Washam. It offered to help Ms. Farris because part of its mission is to defend people whose First Amendment rights are violated.
Although the justification for campaign finance laws is that they are necessary for fighting corruption, this entire case demonstrates the dark side of regulation gone amuck. From artificially low contribution limits imposed in a situation where no corruption nexus exists to PDC’s retaliatory actions, events in Washington provide a first-class example of how all kinds of campaign finance laws are ripe for abuse.
We wish IJ the best of luck in dealing with PDC’s utterly shameful actions.