ELECTIONS BOARD v. WMC No. 98-0596.
227 Wis.2d 650 (1999)
597 N.W.2d 721
ELECTIONS BOARD OF the STATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. WISCONSIN MANUFACTURERS & COMMERCE, WMC Issues Mobilization Council, Inc., ABC Corporation and XYZ Corporation, Defendants-Respondents.
Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
Decided July 7, 1999.
Amicus curiae brief was filed by
Lester A. Pines, Curt F. Pawlisch and Cullen, Weston, Pines & Bach, Madison for the Madison Teachers, Inc.
¶ 1. N. PATRICK CROOKS, J.
This case is before the court as a result of the parties' joint petition to bypass pursuant to Wis. Stat. § (Rule) 809.60 (1995-96).
¶ 3. We also determine that the definition of the term express advocacy is not limited to the specific list of "magic words" such as "vote for" or "defeat" found in Buckley footnote 52. A context-based approach to defining express advocacy may present an attractive alternative, but we note that several courts have rejected such an approach.
¶ 4. The respondents in this action are four Wisconsin corporations. Respondent WMC Issues Mobilization Council, Inc., (IMC), is a non-stock, non-profit corporation which receives financial support from respondents ABC Corporation and XYZ Corporation. To protect their privacy, IMC has refused to name ABC and XYZ. Respondent Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a non-profit corporation, also provides financial support to IMC.
¶ 6. In late October, 1996, IMC produced advertisements referring to six incumbent state legislators who were hoping to be re-elected in the November 5, 1996, general election. Each ad described a legislator's vote on specific issues and encouraged viewers or listeners to call the legislator to express approval or disapproval of the legislator's position.
¶ 8. On March 14, 1997, the Board issued its order regarding the legislators' administrative complaints. The Board found that IMC had engaged in express advocacy and ordered IMC to comply with the provisions of Wis. Stat. ch. 11 by April 15, 1997. Specifically, the Board ordered IMC to file a campaign registration statement and a campaign finance report detailing all contributions made or received, and all disbursements made or obligations incurred, during 1996.
¶ 9. IMC refused to comply with the Board's order. The Board responded by filing the present action in Dane County Circuit Court on June 26, 1997. In its complaint, the Board alleged that IMC's advertisements had the "political purpose of expressly advocating" defeat or re-election of the named legislators. Therefore, the Board asserted, the four
¶ 10. WMC moved to dismiss the Board's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On January 16, 1998, the Dane County Circuit Court, Judge Sarah B. O'Brien presiding, granted WMC's motion. In a 29-page decision, the court determined that the Board could adopt a definition of express advocacy other than the one set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo,
¶ 11. We apply a de novo standard when reviewing a circuit court's dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim. Hermann v. Town of Delavan,
¶ 12. In its complaint, the Board alleges that WMC is subject to regulation because its ads had the "political purpose of expressly advocating the defeat" or
¶ 13. Statutory interpretation is a question of law which this court reviews de novo, although we are benefited in this case by the analysis of the circuit court. See Peters v. Menard, Inc.,
¶ 14. Express advocacy is not defined in the Wisconsin Statutes. The meaning of the term has not been clarified in any published Wisconsin case, and the Board has not published a definition of express advocacy.
¶ 15. The express advocacy language was added to Wis. Stat. ch. 11 after the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Buckley v. Valeo,
¶ 17. Based on these principles, the Court held in Buckley that it could avoid invalidating two provisions of the FECA, the expenditure limit in § 608(e)(1)
Id. at 42. Therefore, to "clearly mark the boundary between permissible and impermissible speech," id. at 41, the scope of political activity regulated by § 608(e)(1) must be "limited to communications that include explicit words of advocacy of election or defeat of a candidate," the Court held. Id. at 43.
¶ 18. Later in the opinion, the Court determined that the § 434(e) disclosure requirement "shares the same potential for encompassing both issue discussion and advocacy of a political result" as the expenditure limit in § 608(e)(1). Id. at 79. The Court explained that "compelled disclosure, in itself, can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment." Id. at 64. Accordingly, the Court stated:
Id. at 80 (footnote omitted).
¶ 19. In footnotes, the Court elaborated on the meaning of its construction of §§ 434(e) and 608(e)(1) as applying only to speech which "expressly advocate[s] the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate." Id. In footnote 52, the Court stated that such a construction "would restrict the application of § 608(e)(1) to communications containing express words of advocacy of election or defeat, such as `vote for,' `elect,' `support,' `cast your ballot for,' `Smith for Congress,' `vote against,' `defeat,' `reject.'" Id. at 44 n.52. Following its discussion of the express advocacy standard as applied to § 434(e), the Court included a footnote referring back to footnote 52. See id. at 80 n. 108.
¶ 20. Although the United States Supreme Court has cited Buckley in several cases, our research discloses only one in which the Court applied the Buckley express advocacy standard: FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc.,
¶ 21. The issue in MCFL was whether, by distributing the newsletter, MCFL had violated § 441b of the FECA, which prohibits corporations from using treasury funds for expenditures "in connection with" federal elections. Id. at 241. The Court determined that, under Buckley, § 441b would be overbroad unless the term "expenditure" in § 441b were construed as applying only to express advocacy. Id. at 248-49. Utilizing this narrowing construction, the Court held that MCFL was in violation of § 441b because its newsletter constituted express advocacy. Id. at 249-51. In reaching this holding, the Court interpreted Buckley as follows:
Id. at 249. The Court then applied the Buckley standard to MCFL's newsletter:
Id. The Court concluded that MCFL's newsletter constituted express advocacy within the purview of § 441b. Id. at 249-50.
¶ 22. As stated previously, Buckley and MCFL comprise the entire volume of cases in which the United States Supreme Court has applied the express advocacy standard. We do not read Buckley and MCFL as requiring that a communication contain any specific "magic words" in order to constitute express advocacy. The words listed in footnote 52 of Buckley are merely examples of words which undoubtedly constitute "express words of advocacy of election or defeat," as evidenced by the Court's use of the phrase "such as" immediately preceding the list of words. Buckley, 424 U.S. at 44 n.52. Consistent with Buckley, when the Court summarized footnote 52 of Buckley in MCFL, it again introduced the words with the phrase "such as."
¶ 23. Further, it would be absurd to hold that those particular "magic words" of advocacy which the Buckley Court chose to mention in footnote 52 qualify as express advocacy while other, equally explicit words of advocacy do not. We can think of no reason to adopt an approach which would regulate an ad which said, "Defeat Smith," but not an ad which said, "Unseat Smith." See Buckley, 424 U.S. at 44 n.52. Consistent with the well-established rule that we should avoid absurd results when interpreting a statute, see Campenni v. Walrath,
¶ 24. In our view, Buckley stands for the proposition that it is unconstitutional to place reporting or disclosure requirements on communications which do not "expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate." Buckley, 424 U.S. at 80. Any standard of express advocacy must be consistent with this principle in order to avoid invalidation on grounds of vagueness and/or overbreadth. See MCFL, 479 U.S. at 248-49; Buckley, 424 U.S. at 44, 80. We are satisfied that for a political communication or advertisement to constitute express advocacy under Buckley and MCFL, it must contain explicit language advocating the election or defeat of a candidate who is clearly
¶ 25. As stated previously, there is no Wisconsin case, statute, or regulation clarifying the meaning of the term express advocacy as used in Wis. Stat. § 11.01(16)(a)1. Buckley and MCFL constitute the only authority which binds Wisconsin courts on the subject.
¶ 26. However, the Board does not assert that WMC's advertisements include any "magic words." Likewise, the Board does not point to any specific words or phrases in the advertisements which might qualify as explicit words which advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.
Furgatch, 807 F.2d at 864. The court explained that under this standard, the message of the speech must be "unmistakable and unambiguous, suggestive of only one plausible meaning," it must "present a clear plea for action," and it "must be clear what action is advocated." Id. Context remains an "ancillary" consideration, the court stated, one "peripheral to the words themselves." Id. at 863. The court specifically relied on the timing of an advertisement (within one week of the election) in concluding that the ad was express advocacy. Id. at 865.
¶ 28. It should be noted, however, that Furgatch makes no mention of the United States Supreme Court's decision in MCFL, even though MCFL preceded Furgatch by nearly one month. See FEC v. Christian Action Network, Inc.,
¶ 29. Regardless of whether it might be permissible to consider context in defining express advocacy, we conclude, for the reasons which follow, that WMC had insufficient warning before broadcasting its advertisements that a context-based standard could be used to determine that the ads were express advocacy which would subject WMC to regulation under the Wis. Stat. ch. 11 provisions at issue.
¶ 30. "Because we assume that [persons are] free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist
¶ 31. The Board's attempt to apply a context-based standard to the ads involved in this case amounts to an after-the-fact effort to create a standard of express advocacy which is broader than the standard existing in Wisconsin when WMC ran its ads.
¶ 32. The United States Supreme Court has held that a deprivation of the due process right of fair warning can occur not only from vague statutory language,
¶ 33. Further, we decline the Board's invitation to craft a new standard of express advocacy for the state of Wisconsin. The creation of such a standard is properly the role of the legislature and the Board, not this court.
¶ 34. We conclude that under the circumstances of this case, WMC, when it broadcast its advertisements, had insufficient warning that the ads could qualify as express advocacy under Wisconsin's campaign finance law. The Board's after-the-fact attempt to apply a context-oriented standard of express advocacy must fail, since, in effect, it was an unfair attempt
¶ 35. Based on our conclusion that the Board may not regulate WMC under the campaign finance laws in ch. 11 on the basis of the retrospective application of a context-based standard of express advocacy, we affirm the circuit court's dismissal of the Board's complaint. We stress that this holding places no
By the Court.—The judgment and order of the circuit court is affirmed.
¶ 36. JON P. WILCOX, J., did not participate.
Nobody, including the Elections Board, is attempting to stop WMC from saying anything they want to say during the election season. What is at stake here is whether the public has a right to know who is paying for whatever it is WMC wants to say during the election season.
¶ 38. The spin surrounding this case has been that the Elections Board is trying to stifle free speech. Not true. It's all about the public knowing who is saying what.
¶ 39. An informed electorate is essential to a healthy democracy. If people are told that a Ford is a great car, it is important for people to know whether Consumer Reports or Ford is saying so. Similarly, if the electorate is being told that a candidate is a great friend of education, it is important for people to know whether the teachers union or Common Cause is saying so. The answer to "Who paid?" answers a lot of questions.
¶ 40. That is what is at stake here, and no amount of spin should be able to hide that fact.
¶ 41. Having said the above, I join the majority opinion. I agree that WMC should be dismissed from the case for lack of notice regarding what constitutes "express advocacy." I would have preferred that a majority could have found its way to expressing a standard by declaring that, in the future, ads such as these constitute "express advocacy." I would have joined that result.
¶ 42. Nevertheless, a half loaf in this instance is far better than no loaf at all. The dissent presents a well reasoned and persuasive case as to why these ads constitute "express advocacy." Does the dissent express
¶ 43. If I joined the dissent, the result would be a 3-3 vote. Guidance is needed and a tie vote does not provide guidance. A tie vote results in no opinion and therefore no standard or guidance from this court on the very issue that needs resolution. Because there is at present no appellate decision on the issue, we would have to remand to the court of appeals for their decision, then consider yet another appeal. Meanwhile, at least one or more election cycles would come and go. Wisconsin would continue to have no standard as to what constitutes "express advocacy." The legislature and the Elections Board, as well as potential advocates such as the Wisconsin Manufacturers Association, would be left completely in the dark as to whether ads that do not contain any "magic words" can be regulated. Drafters of a standard would not know whether they should even consider a context based approach.
¶ 44. The majority opinion, despite the words of the dissent, does provide some needed guidance. It does not provide all the guidance the dissent wants, but in this instance some guidance is better than none.
¶ 46. DAVID T. PROSSER, J. (concurring in part, dissenting in part).
The First Amendment is not what it used to be. It is fashionable today to protect deviant speech
¶ 47. Little is made of the fact that the respondents in this case went to the State Elections Board for
¶ 48. The present case is a new episode in this saga. The majority opinion appears to encourage government rule-making to extend the boundaries of "express advocacy." Rule-makers are encouraged to march through the quicksand of "context" en route to a more correct and perfect political order. The dissent can't wait for others to act; it wants the court to impose its own rules here and now. Both opinions soar into pronouncements about speech regulation after a clear majority of this court decided that we have no viable case before us.
¶ 49. Wisconsin Statutes regulating political expression must be very narrowly construed. 65 O.A.G. 145 (1976). If the term "express advocacy" encompasses more than the magic words enumerated in footnote 52 of Buckley v. Valeo,
¶ 50. The First Amendment is inconsistent with rules that leave people in doubt whether their expression is regulated. It does not countenance enforcement against speech on a case by case basis where government regulators are permitted to draw inferences from circumstances or guess about people's motives.
¶ 52. ANN WALSH BRADLEY, J. (dissenting).
The majority cannot have it both ways: it cannot both uphold the law while at the same time decline to enforce it. Either it must acknowledge and apply the standards already established by the only two United States Supreme Court cases that have addressed express advocacy or, if that standard is unclear, it must do the business of a court and articulate a constitutional standard. Because I believe that it should do the former, and in the end it dodges the issue accomplishing neither, I respectfully dissent.
¶ 53. At the outset I want to note my agreement with the majority. Like the majority, I agree that no particular magic words are necessary for a communication to constitute express advocacy. Majority op. at 669. Like the majority, I agree that the contextual setting may assist in the consideration of whether an ad is express advocacy. Id. at 654, 673-75. Like the majority, I agree that Buckley v. Valeo,
¶ 54. In dodging the issue and relegating the task of defining express advocacy to the legislature or Elections Board, the majority charts a solitary course.
¶ 55. Examining the contours of the High Court's definition of express advocacy is quintessentially a constitutional inquiry. Constitutional inquiries are ultimately the business of courts. Thus, I find it difficult to understand why the majority washes its hands of the matter.
¶ 56. The majority's error is further illustrated by its laudatory comments of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) rule-making process. It sees fit to hold up for high praise the FEC's adoption of a definition for express advocacy, while at the same time castigating the inaction of the Elections Board. Majority op. at 677-79.
¶ 57. However, the majority fails to recognize that the FEC rule is not the product of that agency's creative juices but is little more than permissible plagiarism of various court decisions: subsection (a) is taken from Buckley, 424 U.S. at 43-44, 79-80; subsection (b) is taken from Furgatch, 807 F.2d at 864. See Maine Right to Life Committee v. FEC,
¶ 58. If, however, the majority really believes that it could not apply the term express advocacy as found in Wis. Stat. § 11.01(16)(a)1, or in Wis. Admin. Code ElBd § 1.28 (Apr. 1998), because those provisions are too imprecise to give notice, then the majority should find that enforcement would be a denial of due process because they are unconstitutionally vague. Instead, the majority takes the tack of mischaracterizing the Board's position and based on that mischaracterization dismisses the complaint finding a denial of the due process right of fair warning.
¶ 59. The majority opinion's conclusion that the complaint should be dismissed is based on a faulty foundation. It is built on the premise that the Board's definition of express advocacy is context based. It needs this premise in order to arrive at its conclusion. Such a foundation, however, mischaracterizes the Board's position.
¶ 60. The majority ignores the repeated statements of the Board that its position adopts the Buckley definition as applied by MCFL and that only as a fall back position does the Board address a context-based definition. Instead, the majority selects excerpts from the briefs and oral arguments that advance only the fall back position and then concludes based on those excerpts that the Board is attempting to apply an after-the-fact context-oriented standard. Majority op. at 677.
¶ 61. This flies in the face of the actual position the Board advanced in its brief and at oral argument. In its brief the Board takes the position that the definition
¶ 62. Similarly, at oral argument the Board repeatedly stated the position that sufficient definition of the standard could be found by applying the already established Supreme Court's definition of express advocacy. It argued that there was no need to apply a context-based definition.
¶ 63. In arriving at its misguided conclusion, the majority must, and does, ignore the following exchange and repeated statements of the Board setting forth its primary position.
And the Board's attorney again stated:
¶ 64. Contrary to the repeated requests of the Board, the majority prefers to wait for the legislature or the Elections Board to craft a definition of express advocacy. That has already been done sufficiently by the United States Supreme Court. If the majority finds that definition wanting for specificity, then it should not relegate the task of further definition to some other
¶ 65. Unlike the majority, I would address the issue rather than dodge it. There is no need to invite the legislature or the Elections Board to craft a new standard because the standard already exists. We need not rely on a "previously unarticulated test," majority op. at 679, or an "after-the-fact effort to create a standard of express advocacy," majority op. at 677. Rather, I would acknowledge and apply the already established standards of express advocacy set forth in Buckley and MCFL.
¶ 66. The Buckley Court concluded that government could regulate the disclosure of contributors when the spending is used for communications "that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate." Buckley, 424 U.S. at 80. The Court then precisely defined the express advocacy test as follows:
¶ 67. Buckley, of course, was a facial challenge to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) so the Court did not have occasion to apply its test for express advocacy at that time. However, in MCFL the Court was faced with, to date, its sole opportunity to do just that.
¶ 69. The newsletter listed the candidates for each federal and state office in every voting district in Massachusetts and indicated whether that candidate's position on three issues corresponded with that of MCFL. Id. at 243. While over 400 candidates were listed, only 13 had their picture included in the "Special Edition" and all 13 were candidates whose positions aligned entirely with that of MCFL on the issues listed.
¶ 70. The Court determined that the "Special Edition" was express advocacy. In doing so, the Court first noted that in Buckley the Court had "concluded ...that a finding of `express advocacy' depended upon the use of language such as `vote for,' `elect,' `support,' etc." MCFL, 479 U.S. at 249. The Court then stated that the "Special Edition" included "[j]ust such an exhortation." Id.
¶ 72. If the MCFL Court had seen fit to restrict the appropriate inquiry into only the words of the "Special Edition" it would have limited its discussion to the "dangerous" language of the flyer: "Everything you need to know to vote pro-life," "Vote Pro-Life," and "No pro-life candidate can win in November without your vote in September." MCFL, 479 U.S. at 243. However, the Court did not. Id. at 249.
¶ 73. Instead, the Court noted that the flyer contained more than merely words. As part of its message it contained photographs of certain pro-life candidates. Id. The Court determined that the Buckley express advocacy test is not restricted to a list of possible examples set forth in a footnote. Rather, the Buckley express advocacy test looks to the essence of the advertisement's purpose.
¶ 74. In applying the test the Court focused on the "essential nature" of the flyer. It noted that the flyer could not reasonably be regarded as a "mere discussion of public issues" that necessarily "raise[s] the names of certain politicians." Id. The Court noted that the flyer "in effect" provided the "explicit directive" to "vote for these (named) candidates." Id. Finally, the Court noted that even if the flyer's message was "marginally less direct than `Vote for Smith'" its "essential nature" constituted express advocacy.
¶ 76. This approach, labeling advertisements as express advocacy when their essential nature unmistakably advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate, is more congruous with the realities of both advertising and speech. The accuracy of this statement is reinforced with even the most superficial observations of advertising in general. Few advertisements will directly say "Buy Nike rather than Reebok" or "Drink Maxwell House coffee." Be they in the print or electronic media, advertisements normally do not include a call for action or use "magic words" to relay their message. Yet every reader, listener, or viewer knows that "Less filling, tastes great" is an unambiguous exhortation to purchase a particular type of Miller beer, and "They're Gr-r-reat!" is Tony the Tiger's unambiguous appeal to buy a box of sugar-coated corn flakes.
¶ 77. The approach delineated by the Supreme Court does not stand for semantic shrewdness. Rather, its approach is to look at the essential nature of the advertisement. Such an approach does not open Pandora's box either, for it only applies to those
¶ 78. Under such a standard, there can be no doubt that the advertisements at issue here are really "exhortation[s] to vote for or against. . .specific candidate[s]." The essential nature of these advertisements is candidate advocacy, not issue advocacy. These advertisements mention issues only as a vehicle of propping up or tearing down a particular candidate. Take away references to the candidates and precious little, if anything, would remain of the advertisement.
¶ 79. These advertisements are about vilifying or venerating a candidate; they are not about issues. There is a picture of a candidate and a name of a candidate that predominates each advertisement. Consider, for example, the following advertisement sponsored by WMC:
¶ 80. While issues such as taxes and education were discussed in the advertisement, they could not reasonably be considered the advertisement's essential
¶ 81. WMC also sponsored the following advertisement:
Again taxes, education, and spending were issues mentioned in this advertisement. However, it is unreasonable to consider the essential nature of this ad to be anything other than express advocacy for the candidate. This was clearly not a "mere discussion of public issues" that necessarily "raise[d] the names of certain politicians." MCFL, 479 U.S. at 249. While a directive to call a candidate and thank him may be "marginally less direct than `Vote for Smith,'" its essential nature is nonetheless express advocacy.
¶ 82. Finally I address the concurrence of Justice Bablitch. I am perplexed by the "halfloaf is better than no loaf" analysis. I submit that whether we are left with a halfloaf, a whole loaf, or no loaf at all should not drive our legal analysis and conclusions. Our job is to interpret and apply the law based on legal precedents, reason, and common sense. I agree with the concurrence as it addresses the essence of this case but disagree with its bottom-line approach.
¶ 84. We should decide those issues as to which we agree, acknowledge a divided court on the remaining issues, and remand the case to the court of appeals for a decision on the issues that divide us. The court of appeals may then apply the standard already defined by Buckley and MCFL and adopted by the majority. By joining the majority's mandate but endorsing the dissent's rationale, the concurrence effectively eliminates the possibility that the standard will ever be applied in this case.
¶ 85. Additionally, although the concurrence asserts that its decision is driven by a desire to get a speedy answer, the route that it has chosen will delay rather than achieve a prompt resolution. The concurrence invites the Elections Board or the legislature to establish rules, a time-consuming venture that they might not undertake. Most assuredly, any rules would be challenged and again the issue would end up before us to decide. The path espoused by the concurrence results only in further delay.
¶ 86. I end where I began. The majority errs in its attempt to have it both ways. It upholds the law but then turns around and declines to enforce it. It was required this day to choose which path it wished to follow: apply the express advocacy standard defined by the Supreme Court or, if that standard is too vague,
¶ 87. I am authorized to state that CHIEF JUSTICE SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON joins this opinion.
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