Federal Court Strikes Down Wisconsin Limits on Political Issue Ads

by | May 15, 2014 AT 7:50 PM

By Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

A federal appeals court has struck down state rules regulating campaign-style issue ads, but the practical impact of the decision is blunted because the rules had already been sidelined by another lawsuit 3 1/2 years ago.

Wednesday's decision by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals likely ends a legal battle that has played out in state and federal court since 2010. It began when the state Government Accountability Board was sued for seeking to regulate ads that weighed in on issues and candidates in the run-up to an election without expressly advocating for the defeat or victory of the candidates In this case, Wisconsin Right to Life and its political action committee sued the GAB in 2010 in federal court in Milwaukee.

Around the same time, the conservative Club for Growth and the liberal One Wisconsin Now sued over the regulations in federal court in Madison, and several tea party groups and other conservatives sued over the matter in state Supreme Court.

In an agreement with the Club for Growth and One Wisconsin in 2010, the GAB capitulated and agreed not to enforce key aspects of the rules, including making public who paid for them in many cases.

Wednesday's decision made clear what was already evident then -- that the GAB rules had not been on sound constitutional footing.

Those suing the board in the three cases said that the GAB overreached and wrote rules that unconstitutionally inhibit their free speech. The rules said those who spend more than $25 in the weeks before an election on ads, e-mails or other communications that discuss candidates must disclose their donors.

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