In a narrow but strong affirmation of First Amendment political speech freedoms, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the aggregate campaign contributions limits in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In doing so, the Court upheld the primary importance of keeping political speech as unrestricted as possible.
Writing for a plurality opinion (and joined by Justice Thomas, who concurred separately to indicate that he would protect political speech even further), Justice Roberts began by articulating the bedrock principle that there is “no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Further, political speech is to be encouraged, not limited: “The First Amendment is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us."
Consequently, any government restraint of political speech – no matter how well intentioned – must be evaluated carefully. In particular, the government must have not only a legitimate objective for limiting political speech, but also a compellingly “close fit” between such limitations and the means selected to achieve such objective.
The statute at issue limited individual and total contribution amounts to political campaigns. (These limitations are contained in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002). The government argued that both the individual and aggregate financial limitations were critical to preventing “quid pro quo” corruption – that is, undue influence by people on politicians. The Court agreed that the individual limitation satisfied the constitutional test for a “close fit,” because it could reasonably be expected to reduce the risk of essentially “buying” political influence over a specific candidate. The Court disagreed, however, that the same rationale would equally apply to aggregate limitations.