Court to review Cincinnati limits on campaign spending

Tuesday, March 17, 1998

CINCINNATI (AP) — The city’s lawyers are defending a challenged ordinance that limits campaign spending in City Council election campaigns.

A federal judge struck down the ordinance in January 1997, ruling that it violates First Amendment free-speech guarantees. The city appealed and was granted a hearing scheduled for today before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

John Kruse, an unsuccessful 1995 candidate for the City Council, sued in 1996 to challenge the law. It limits campaign spending to three times the annual salary of a council member–capping the allowable spending at about $140,000.

“If the First Amendment means nothing else, it means that each of us has the right to express our political views freely and without limitation,” U.S. district court Judge Herman Weber wrote in his ruling last year.

In a 1976 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled candidates have a free-speech right to spend an unlimited amount of their own money in their campaigns. The decision–which critics argue gives an unfair advantage to well-heeled candidates–also found that mandatory spending limits violate the First Amendment.

Supporters of Cincinnati’s 1995 ordinance deliberately challenged that ruling. They argue that campaign funding has changed sufficiently since 1976 to merit reconsideration of the issue.

Kruse’s lawyer, Christopher Finney, said he is confident that the appeals court will uphold Weber’s decision.

“It’s a core political-speech rights case,” Finney said. “You can’t limit political speech without undermining the First Amendment.”

Donald Mooney, a lawyer for groups that have intervened to help the city appeal Weber’s ruling, said unlimited spending by wealthy candidates enables them to buy up most television ad time close to elections, drowning out opposing candidates.

Mooney said a key issue for the appeals court to decide is whether the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision leaves local and state governments with any rights to control political spending.

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