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Campaign finance rules overturned

Associated Press / September 19, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Independent advocacy groups will be able to spend more money to try to influence federal elections under a decision yesterday from a federal appeals court that overturned rules limiting nonprofit groups’ campaign spending.

Three judges of the US Court of Appeals in Washington agreed with EMILY’s List, a nonprofit that backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, that the regulations limited free speech rights.

The Federal Election Commission enacted the rules in 2005, after concerns were raised about the amount of unlimited “soft money’’ contributions used to fund attacks in the 2004 election.

The FEC said nonprofits would have to pay for political activities involving federal candidates using limited “hard money’’ contributions. Individuals are allowed to donate up to $5,000 annually to a nonprofit that indicates it plans to use the money to support or oppose a federal candidate.

“The First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, protects the right of individual citizens to spend unlimited amounts to express their views about policy issues and candidates for public office,’’ the court ruling said. The First Amendment also “safeguards the right of citizens to band together and pool their resources as an unincorporated group or nonprofit organization in order to express their views about policy issues and candidates for public office.’’

FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram said the agency was studying the opinion and had not decided whether to appeal.

Richard L. Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the opinion follows the lead in recent years of the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly struck down campaign finance limits as unconstitutional. He said the opinion would put political parties at a disadvantage because they are still bound by the fund-raising limits.