Rhode Island’s Political Spending Transparency Law Upheld by Federal Appeals Court

WASHINGTON – Rhode Island’s political spending transparency rules have been upheld by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals observed that “a well-informed electorate is as vital to the survival of a democracy as air is to the survival of human life” while upholding the state’s 2012 Independent Expenditures and Electioneering Communications Act.

Read the ruling here.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC), along with Common Cause Rhode Island and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, filed an amicus brief in the case, in support of the state and the transparency law.

“Rhode Islanders have a right to know who is spending in an attempt to influence their votes,” said CLC Legal Counsel Austin Graham. “The First Circuit’s decision preserves that right by upholding Rhode Island’s transparency rules for election spending and helps to ensure state voters remain well-informed – which, to quote the First Circuit’s opinion, is ‘as vital to the survival of a democracy as air is to the survival of human life.’”

“This ruling represents a win for Rhode Island’s voters. We deserve to know who’s paying to influence our elections,” said Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion. “Voters need to be able to ‘consider the source’ of information when deciding whether or not to believe it. And if the ‘source’ is shielded, then we have no way of judging motivations behind the information or whether it’s trustworthy.”

Among other provisions, Rhode Island’s political transparency rules require groups spending $1,000 or more on electioneering ads to disclose donors that gave at least $1,000 to fund the ads and provide that ads run by certain groups must include “top-five” disclaimers identifying their five largest contributors.

In 2019, the Gaspee Project and Illinois Opportunity Project challenged the law, seeking to spend thousands of dollars distributing election-related mailers to Rhode Island voters without identifying themselves or their large contributors to the public.

In August 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island dismissed the complaint, finding the provisions constitutionally serve the state’s vital interest in equipping voters with essential information about special interests spending to influence their vote.

The appeals court held that Rhode Island’s law satisfies exacting scrutiny and is narrowly tailored to the state’s important interest in an informed electorate, rejecting the plaintiffs’ attempts to compare their privacy concerns to NAACP v. Alabama and Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta.

The law was proposed and passed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that itself upheld federal disclosure requirements for independent expenditures.