Is a low-budget online video that names political candidates, states campaign issues and includes language that could sway opinion in an election, a political advertisement subject to donor disclosure laws, or is it an expression of free speech protected by the First Amendment? That depends on who you ask. If it aims to influence federal elections, it should be subject to federal regulation, Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center told NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman in a recent interview about campaign ad financing, non-profits and the 2012 elections. In the first presidential election since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations, unions and non-profits to spend unlimited dollars on content that expresses their political views, a whole new landscape in campaign ad financing is emerging. In addition to emergence of advertisements from super PACs, groups that can spend unlimited dollars on campaign messaging, more groups have been asking the Federal Election Commission for permission not to disclose their donors, Ryan said.
In what appears to be a test case, attorneys for Arlington, Va-based National Defense Committee, last month filed a request for an opinion on seven videos it plans to produce and post online this fall. NDC officials said they want to produce and distribute the videos and solicit donations for future advertisements that would “discuss public issues relevant to upcoming federal elections, military voting, and policy positions of candidates for federal office that relate to National Defense’s core mission.” In the filing, NDC says it “wishes to avoid the public stigma and regulatory burden of being labeled a political action committee,” which would include disclosure requirements.