Issue 92, Winter 2003/2004

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the major provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law banning unlimited “soft money” donations and regulating campaign ads just before elections. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act closes loopholes in the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act in an attempt by Congress to stop special interest groups from exceeding legal limits on campaign contributions and end influence-peddling. The vote of Sandra Day O’Connor—the only Justice who has also been in political life—was pivotal. In its ruling, the Court gave great weight to Congressional authority to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. The majority decision, written jointly by Justices John Paul Stevens and O’Connor, describes numerous Congressional efforts at regulation to “purge national politics of what was perceived to be the pernicious influence of ‘big money’ campaign contributions.”

The decision has divided the First Amendment community. Free speech groups that opposed the law had argued, among other claims, that the law infringes on the First Amendment speech and association rights.

The decision is online at For more analysis, see the Free Expression Policy Website: