Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.

PETITIONER: Federal Election Commission
RESPONDENT: Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.
LOCATION: Massachusetts Citizens for Life

DOCKET NO.: 85-701
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 479 US 238 (1986)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1986
DECIDED: Dec 15, 1986
GRANTED: Jan 13, 1986

Charles Nevett Steele - on behalf of Appellant
Francis H. Fox - on behalf of Appellee

Facts of the case

On January 26, 1973, Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) incorporated under the laws of Massachusetts as a non-stock, non-membership corporation. Beginning in January 1973, MCFL distributed a newsletter to its contributors focused on MCFL’s political concerns. Prior to the September 19, 1978, primary elections, MCFL distributed a flyer to contributors, due-payers and to approximately 50,000 people MCFL considered sympathetic to its goals. This flyer encouraged readers to vote ‘pro-life’, listed candidates for state and federal office in every voting district in the state, and identified each candidate as either supporting or opposing MCFL’s views.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibited corporations from spending general corporate treasury funds on any federal election; MCFL spent a total of $9,812.76 from its general treasury on the flyers in question. When conciliation proved unsuccessful, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) filed a complaint against MCFL seeking a civil penalty and other relief. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court found for MCFL, holding that the flyers did not fit within the act’s definition of ‘expenditure’ and that the flyers fell under the act’s press exemption for news stories, commentaries, or editorials. The court also held that the act would violate the First Amendment if applied.

After examining the legislative history of the FECA, the United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, reversed. It held that the flyers fit within the act’s definition of ‘expenditure’ and did not fall under its press exemption. It did, however, affirm the lower court’s ruling that FECA would be unconstitutional if applied, holding that the government offered no substantial government interest.


Did Massachusetts Citizens for Life violate the Federal Election Campaign Act by distributing flyers asking voters to vote “for life” paid for with treasury funds?

Does that section of FECA violate the First Amendment as applied?

Media for Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 1986 in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

You may proceed when you're ready, Mr. Steele.

Charles Nevett Steele:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

This case comes forward on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, holding unconstitutional a statute of the United States as applied to nonprofit ideological corporations.

The statute in question, that was held unconstitutional, is the provision of the federal code regulating the means by which corporations and labor organizations participate in federal elections.

The court found the statute unconstitutional because it requires that all expenditures in connection with a federal election be made from fund explicitly and voluntarily given for that purpose, kept separate from all other funds of these organizations, and publicly reported.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward.

The corporation in question is the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a non-membership corporation under Massachusetts law whose central purpose is to foster respect for human life and to defend the right to human life, all human beings, born and unborn.

It has carried out its purposes by raising funds and contributions which it uses to further its purposes through dissemination of information, education, and legislation.

It does this in large part through a newsletter which it distributes.

Antonin Scalia:

It is now a membership corporation, am I correct about that?

At the time the events at issue here occurred it was not, but it now is?

Charles Nevett Steele:


The record seems to reflect that from the discussions.

After 1978 it became a membership corporation, apparently.

The Massachusetts Citizens for Life in 1978, September of 1978, before the Massachusetts primary, distributed an election flyer, labeled a special election edition flyer, which proclaimed that it had in it everything you need to vote pro-life, set forth the MCFL's positions on several issues, indicated the positions in relationship to some 400 candidates, all federal candidates and state candidates, urged the recipients to vote pro-life, depicted some of them with pictures, those who supported the pro-life position.

The question before this Court is whether Congress can require that the funds used for such advocacy can be separate... can be required to be separate and segregated from the funds which consist only of voluntary contributions.

The court below concluded that the statute in question restricted the simplest method by which Massachusetts Citizens for Life could achieve its advocacy.

It said that there was a burden on the rights of speech and association because of the requirement of establishing the separate segregated fund.

Before going on to the reasoning of the court, I would like to note explicitly three things that it did not decide:

It did not decide that the statute prohibited the speech in question, but only that it burdened it;--

It did not decide that the statute prohibited the distribution of voting records, nor even that the statute required that voting records be distributed through the mechanism of a separate, segregated fund;--

And it did not prohibit this organization or any other similar organization from distributing in a newsletter to its members voting records which advocated the election and the defeat of candidates.

What it did hold was that Congress cannot for express advocacy in elections require that any material that is disseminated to the general public, not distributed in the way that a message ordinarily is by an organization, can be required to be from a separately segregated fund, from a fund which apprises everyone that the contributions to it will be used in connection with specific federal elections--

William H. Rehnquist:

I take it it's the organization that apprises the people, not the fund?

Charles Nevett Steele:

--Yes, the organization in making the solicitations... those can be done by the organization, would be done by the organization, and they would be the ones that apprised them of that.

There are three policies underlying the Act which we think that the court's decision goes against.

First of all, if the court's decision stands the disclosure aspects of the Act are substantially undercut.

Again, there are really three purposes put forward by the statute.

One of them is the disclosure.

It has been argued here that the section in question, Section 441(b), whose antecedent goes back to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, is not a disclosure statute.