Buckley v. Valeo Primary Source eText

Primary Source

President Gerald Ford and the First Lady campaign for the presidential election, September 25, 1976, just months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Buckley v. Valeo. © WALLY MCNAMEE/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. President Gerald Ford and the First Lady campaign for the presidential election, September 25, 1976, just months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Buckley v. Valeo. © WALLY MCNAMEE/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © WALLY MCNAMEE/ CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Supreme Court decision

By: U.S. Supreme Court

Date: January 30, 1976

Source: U.S. Supreme Court. Buckley v. Valeo. 424 U.S. 1 (1976). Available online at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/424/1.html; website home page: http://www.findlaw.com (accessed April 16, 2003).

About the Organization: The Burger Court was created largely by President Richard Nixon's (served 1969–1974) nominations, because he desired to severely limit the Warren Court's rulings. Nixon appointed Warren Burger to lead the Court in 1969 and appointed three more justices, but only William Rehnquist was predictably conservative. Nixon's other appointments, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell, were often more liberal than Nixon liked. The Burger Court did limit the Warren Court somewhat, but it was the Rehnquist Court that created a counterrevolution.


Politics was originally thought of as a way for the best of society to serve the rest of society. Parties were not necessary, as the best people would stand for office, serve for a time, and then return to being average citizens. The rise of political parties changed this ideal, but the idea of the interest of the common man returned theoretically in the 1820s with Jacksonian reforms that greatly increased the electorate. With the rise of big business though in the late 1800s, politics seemed again to be the province of the rich, with politicians allegedly at the beck and call of companies. Companies worked to control local legislators by employing them, such as company attorneys, by giving them free things, like a train ticket if a railroad company was soliciting favors, and so on.

Populists complained about the lack of democracy, but little changed. Progressives, although arising from quite different groups than the populists, had many of the same concerns and pushed for democratic reforms. Many states passed referendums, initiatives, and recall laws, and the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) allowed for the direct election of senators. All of these reforms were aimed at giving power back to the people.

With the rise of television, however, the costs of elections skyrocketed, both in the primaries and the general elections. This required either wealthy people to run for office or have the backing of wealthy individuals. For a time, the cost of elections was not a front-page issue. However, President Nixon's misuse of campaign funds, which supported many of the escapades that became Watergate, along with a growing belief that political donors were buying influence and special considerations, sparked a move for campaign finance reform. In 1974, Congress amended an earlier campaign finance law that had never been truly enforced. These reforms were challenged in Buckley v. Valeo (1976).


The decision in Buckley allowed limitations on campaign contributions, but did not allow limitations on campaign expenditures. At best, the decision required a candidate to raise funds widely, as campaign costs continued to escalate. At worst, it did nothing, as people began to contribute through political action committees, their spouses and families, and other groups, giving $1,000 each time in order to get around the law. The decision also did little to deal with what came to be called "soft money," which was given to the party organizations, which in turn was used to promote a candidate or a candidate's fund-raising activities.

There has been a growth industry in "issue ads," which promote a certain view, such as being in favor of tax cuts, and are run in a district where the incumbent is against tax cuts. The ad ends with a message for the viewer to call the incumbent and tell him or her to cut taxes. The implied message, of course, is that tax cuts are good and one should promote them, and the best way to do that is to vote for a candidate who favors them. Such ads, though, had not been covered by campaign finance laws until the early 2000s.

Supreme Court cases since Buckley have generally followed Buckley's trend of limiting contributions, but few other limits. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which aimed to eliminate soft money and control other ways in which individuals and corporations were getting around the current laws and controlling legislation. (Senators differ on what effect it will really have). This law had been suggested for years, but was widely opposed by those getting the most contributions.

Primary Source: Buckley v. Valeo [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: The opinion begins by noting the ideas behind the act. It then addresses the fact that the limits on contributions and expenditures reaches into an area protected by the freedom of speech and the freedom of association, both parts of the First Amendment. The Court then upholds the contribution limits and the disclosure requirements of the act, but strikes down the expenditure limits as impinging too much on the freedom of speech.

I. Contribution and Expenditure Limitations

The intricate statutory scheme adopted by Congress to regulate federal election campaigns includes restrictions on political contributions and expenditures that apply broadly to all phases of and all participants in the election process. The major contribution and expenditure limitations in the Act prohibit individuals from contributing more than $25,000 in a single year or more than $1,000 to any single candidate for an election campaign and from spending more than $1,000 a year "relative to a clearly identified candidate." Other provisions restrict a candidate's use of personal and family resources in his campaign and limit the overall amount that can be spent by a candidate in campaigning for federal office.

The constitutional power of Congress to regulate federal elections is well established and is not questioned by any of the parties in this case. Thus, the critical constitutional questions presented here go not to the basic power of Congress to legislate in this area, but to whether the specific legislation that Congress has enacted interferes with First Amendment freedoms or invidiously discriminates against nonincumbent candidates and minor parties in contravention of the Fifth Amendment.

A. General Principles

The Act's contribution and expenditure limitations operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities. Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution. The First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression in order "to assure [the] unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people." …

The First Amendment protects political association as well as political expression. The constitutional right of association explicated in NAACP v. Alabama … stemmed from the Court's recognition that "[e]ffective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association." …

The expenditure limitations contained in the Act represent substantial rather than merely theoretical restraints on the quantity and diversity of political speech.…

By contrast with a limitation upon expenditures for political expression, a limitation upon the amount that any one person or group may contribute to a candidate or political committee entails only a marginal restriction upon the contributor's ability to engage in free communication.… A limitation on the amount of money a person may give to a candidate or campaign organization thus involves little direct restraint on his political communication, for it permits the symbolic expression of support evidenced by a contribution but does not in any way infringe the contributor's freedom to discuss candidates and issues.…

The Act's contribution and expenditure limitations also impinge on protected associational freedoms. Making a contribution, like joining a political party, serves to affiliate a person with a candidate. In addition, it enables like-minded persons to pool their resources in furtherance of common political goals. The Act's contribution ceilings thus limit one important means of associating with a candidate or committee, but leave the contributor free to become a member of any political association and to assist personally in the association's efforts on behalf of candidates. And the Act's contribution limitations permit associations and candidates to aggregate large sums of money to promote effective advocacy. By contrast, the Act's $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures "relative to a clearly identified candidate" precludes most associations from effectively amplifying the voice of their adherents, the original basis for the recognition of First Amendment protection of the freedom of association.…

In sum, although the Act's contribution and expenditure limitations both implicate fundamental First Amendment interests, its expenditure ceilings impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than do its limitations on financial contributions.

B. Contribution Limitations …

… Even a "'significant interference' with protected rights of political association" may be sustained if the State demonstrates a sufficiently important interest and employs means closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms.…

It is unnecessary to look beyond the Act's primary purpose—to limit the actuality and appearance of corruption resulting from large individual financial contributions—in order to find a constitutionally sufficient justification for the $1,000 contribution limitation. Under a system of private financing of elections, a candidate lacking immense personal or family wealth must depend on financial contributions from others to provide the resources necessary to conduct a successful campaign. The increasing importance of the communications media and sophisticated mass-mailing and polling operations to effective campaigning make the raising of large sums of money an ever more essential ingredient of an effective candidacy. To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Although the scope of such pernicious practices can never be reliably ascertained, the deeply disturbing examples surfacing after the 1972 election demonstrate that the problem is not an illusory one.

Of almost equal concern as the danger of actual quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of corruption stemming from public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions.…

Appellants contend that the contribution limitations must be invalidated because bribery laws and

narrowly drawn disclosure requirements constitute a less restrictive means of dealing with "proven and suspected quid pro quo arrangements." But laws making criminal the giving and taking of bribes deal with only the most blatant and specific attempts of those with money to influence governmental action. And while disclosure requirements serve the many salutary purposes discussed elsewhere in this opinion, Congress was surely entitled to conclude that disclosure was only a partial measure, and that contribution ceilings were a necessary legislative concomitant to deal with the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions, even when the identities of the contributors and the amounts of their contributions are fully disclosed.…

We find that, under the rigorous standard of review established by our prior decisions, the weighty interests served by restricting the size of financial contributions to political candidates are sufficient to justify the limited effect upon First Amendment freedoms caused by the $1,000 contribution ceiling.…

C. Expenditure Limitations

1. The $1,000 Limitation on Expenditures "Relative to a Clearly Identified Candidate"

… The plain effect of 608 (e) (1) is to prohibit all individuals, who are neither candidates nor owners of institutional press facilities, and all groups, except political parties and campaign organizations, from voicing their views "relative to a clearly identified candidate" through means that entail aggregate expenditures of more than $1,000 during a calendar year. The provision, for example, would make it a federal criminal offense for a person or association to place a single one-quarter page advertisement "relative to a clearly identified candidate" in a major metropolitan newspaper.

We find that the governmental interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption is inadequate to justify 608 (e) (1)'s ceiling on independent expenditures. First, assuming, arguendo, that large independent expenditures pose the same dangers of actual or apparent quid pro quo arrangements as do large contributions, 608 (e) (1) does not provide an answer that sufficiently relates to the elimination of those dangers. Unlike the contribution limitations' total ban on the giving of large amounts of money to candidates, 608 (e) (1) prevents only some large expenditures. So long as persons and groups eschew expenditures that in express terms advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views.…

While the independent expenditure ceiling thus fails to serve any substantial governmental interest in stemming the reality or appearance of corruption in the electoral process, it heavily burdens core First Amendment expression. For the First Amendment right to "'speak one's mind … on all public institutions'" includes the right to engage in "'vigorous advocacy' no less than 'abstract discussion.'" … Advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates for federal office is no less entitled to protection under the First Amendment than the discussion of political policy generally or advocacy of the passage or defeat of legislation.

It is argued, however, that the ancillary governmental interest in equalizing the relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections serves to justify the limitation on express advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates imposed by 608 (e) (1)'s expenditure ceiling. But the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment, which was designed "to secure 'the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources,'" and "'to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.'" …

For the reasons stated, we conclude that 608 (e) (1)'s independent expenditure limitation is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

2. Limitation on Expenditures by Candidates from Personal or Family Resources …

The ceiling on personal expenditures by candidates on their own behalf, like the limitations on independent expenditures contained in 608 (e) (1), imposes a substantial restraint on the ability of persons to engage in protected First Amendment expression. The candidate, no less than any other person, has a First Amendment right to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own election and the election of other candidates. Indeed, it is of particular importance that candidates have the unfettered opportunity to make their views known so that the electorate may intelligently evaluate the candidates' personal qualities and their positions on vital public issues before choosing among them on election day.…

The primary governmental interest served by the Act—the prevention of actual and apparent corruption of the political process—does not support the limitation on the candidate's expenditure of his own personal funds.… Indeed, the use of personal funds reduces the candidate's dependence on outside contributions and thereby counteracts the coercive pressures and attendant risks of abuse to which the Act's contribution limitations are directed.

The ancillary interest in equalizing the relative financial resources of candidates competing for elective office, therefore, provides the sole relevant rationale for 608 (a)'s expenditure ceiling. That interest is clearly not sufficient to justify the provision's infringement of fundamental First Amendment rights. First, the limitation may fail to promote financial equality among candidates. A candidate who spends less of his personal resources on his campaign may nonetheless outspend his rival as a result of more successful fundraising efforts. Indeed, a candidate's personal wealth may impede his efforts to persuade others that he needs their financial contributions or volunteer efforts to conduct an effective campaign. Second, and more fundamentally, the First Amendment simply cannot tolerate 608 (a)'s restriction upon the freedom of a candidate to speak without legislative limit on behalf of his own candidacy. We therefore hold that 608 (a)'s restriction on a candidate's personal expenditures is unconstitutional.…

In sum, the provisions of the Act that impose a $1,000 limitation on contributions to a single candidate, 608 (b) (1), a $5,000 limitation on contributions by a political committee to a single candidate, 608 (b) (2), and a $25,000 limitation on total contributions by an individual during any calendar year, 608 (b) (3), are constitutionally valid.… The contribution ceilings thus serve the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion. By contrast, the First Amendment requires the invalidation of the Act's independent expenditure ceiling, 608 (e) (1), its limitation on a candidate's expenditures from his own personal funds, 608 (a), and its ceilings on overall campaign expenditures, 608 (c). These provisions place substantial and direct restrictions on the ability of candidates, citizens, and associations to engage in protected political expression, restrictions that the First Amendment cannot tolerate.…

II. Reporting and Disclosure Requirements

A. General Principles

Unlike the overall limitations on contributions and expenditures, the disclosure requirements impose no ceiling on campaign-related activities. But we have repeatedly found that compelled disclosure, in itself, can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment.…

We long have recognized that significant encroachments on First Amendment rights of the sort that compelled disclosure imposes cannot be justified by a mere showing of some legitimate governmental interest. Since NAACP v. Alabama we have required that the subordinating interests of the State must survive exacting scrutiny.… This type of scrutiny is necessary even if any deterrent effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights arises, not through direct government action, but indirectly as an unintended but inevitable result of the government's conduct in requiring disclosure.…

The governmental interests sought to be vindicated by the disclosure requirements are of this magnitude. They fall into three categories. First, disclosure provides the electorate with information "as to where political campaign money comes from and how it is spent by the candidate" in order to aid the voters in evaluating those who seek federal office. It allows voters to place each candidate in the political spectrum more precisely than is often possible solely on the basis of party labels and campaign speeches. The sources of a candidate's financial support also alert the voter to the interests to which a candidate is most likely to be responsive and thus facilitate predictions of future performance in office.

Second, disclosure requirements deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity.…

Third, and not least significant, recordkeeping, reporting, and disclosure requirements are an essential means of gathering the data necessary to detect violations of the contribution limitations described above.

The disclosure requirements, as a general matter, directly serve substantial governmental interests. In determining whether these interests are sufficient to justify the requirements we must look to the extent of the burden that they place on individual rights.

It is undoubtedly true that public disclosure of contributions to candidates and political parties will deter some individuals who otherwise might contribute. In some instances, disclosure may even expose contributors to harassment or retaliation. These are not insignificant burdens on individual rights, and they must be weighed carefully against the interests which Congress has sought to promote by this legislation. In this process, we note and agree with appellants' concession that disclosure requirements—certainly in most applications—appear to be the least restrictive means of curbing the evils of campaign ignorance and corruption that Congress found to exist.…

In summary, we find no constitutional infirmities in the recordkeeping, reporting, and disclosure provisions of the Act.

Further Resources


Banks, Christopher P., and John Clifford Green. Superintending Democracy: The Courts and the Political Process. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2001.

Campaign Finance Study Group. An Analysis of the Impact of the Federal Election Campaign Act, 1972–1978, From the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979.

Carter, Jimmy. To Assure Pride and Confidence in the Electoral Process. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2002.

Luna, Christopher. Campaign Finance Reform. New York: Wilson, 2001.

Utter, Glenn H., and Ruth Ann Strickland. Campaign and Election Reform: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.


"Campaign Finance Regulation and the First Amendment." Exploring Constitutional Conflicts, University of Missouri, Kansas City. Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/cam... ; website home page: http://www.law.umkc.edu (accessed April 16, 2003).


Campaign Finance Reform. Public Affairs Video Archives, 1991, VHS.

So You Want to Buy a President? PBS Video, 1996, VHS.