Global Freedom of Expression

Buckley v. Valeo

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    February 27, 1976
  • Outcome
  • Case Number
    424 U.S. 1
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Political Expression
  • Tags

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of campaign contribution limits, but found that expenditure caps were unconstitutional. Six plaintiffs argued that certain amendments of the 1974 Federal Campaign Act (FECA) violated the right to free speech since the provisions made it more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents. The Court reasoned that despite First Amendment concerns, campaign contribution limits under FECA enhanced the integrity of American democracy by guarding it against unethical practices. However, the Court noted that expenditure caps imposed on candidates, groups or individuals were unconstitutional because they severely restricted free speech.


Various Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the FECA amendments, raising six different issues. Plaintiffs were from diverse political backgrounds, and were primarily concerned about how the amended FECA provisions would make it more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents, including minor parties and independents. Because of this concern, the Plaintiffs asserted that certain amendments to the FECA violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

The Plaintiffs argued that limiting the monetary amount of contributions to campaigns, and capping the monetary amount of campaign expenditures unconstitutionally limited the right to free speech. The Plaintiffs framed the expenditure caps as a restriction on political speech, arguing that limiting a campaign expenditure, such as in the case of a minority or independent party, would place them at an unfair disadvantage because they would be unable to compete with the name recognition of the incumbent. The Plaintiffs argued that this resulted in a restriction on political speech, or in other words, the restriction acted to create an environment where too little political speech could occur. The Plaintiffs also challenged the record keeping provisions of FECA, arguing that requiring campaigns to keep track and disclose minor monetary contributions (e.g. $10) burdened the right to an individual’s political anonymity. The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to express speech, either anonymously or not.

Decision Overview

In its lengthy Opinion, the Court upheld contribution limits to political candidates and the disclosure requirements, but found the expenditure caps to be unconstitutional. The Court justified its holding by explaining the state’s interest in “the prevention of corruption and the appearance of corruption spawned by the real or imagined coercive influence of large financial contributions on candidates’ positions and on their actions if elected to office.”

In upholding the campaign contribution limits, the Court determined that the contributions, although political acts implicating the First Amendment, was not unconstitutional. In upholding the contribution limits, the Court stated that “the primary interest served by the limitations and, indeed, by the Act as a whole, is the prevention of corruption and the appearance of corruption spawned by the real or imagined coercive influence of large financial contributions on candidates’ positions and on their actions if elected to office.” Because of this, despite First Amendment concerns, the contributions limitations were found to be constitutional.

In reviewing the expenditure caps, the Court explained that its constitutionality depended “on whether the governmental interests advanced in its support satisfy the exacting scrutiny applicable to limitations on core First Amendment rights of political expression.” The Court held that expenditure (spending) limits by candidates, groups, or individuals were unconstitutional because the “expenditure ceilings impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedoms of political expression and association than do its limitations on financial contributions” since “[t]he First Amendment’s protection against governmental abridgment of free expression cannot properly be made to depend on a person’s financial ability to engage in public discussion.” The Court reasoned that a “candidate, no less than any other person, has a First Amendment right to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own election and the election of other candidates.” The Court further explained that the expenditure caps were unconstitutional because, “it is not the government, but the people individually as citizens and candidates and collectively as associations and political committees who must retain control over the quantity and range of debate on public issues in a political campaign.”

The Court upheld mandatory disclosure & reporting of contributions, finding that the disclosure/reporting requirements were not overbroad, and were constitutional.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

The Court’s Opinion is controversial because of the concern that the decision signifies that money equates to speech. For example, in its Opinion, the Court explained that, “[a] restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.” Thus, the concern is that the Court is identifying a direct correlation between the amount of political speech one may make to the amount of money used in, or donated to, a campaign.

Limiting the amount of money that a candidate can raise or spend in a campaign places restrictions on the amount of political speech that one can engage in, as the amount of speech that candidates can engage in are controlled by monetary limits.

Futher, some critics have raised concerns about how there is little distinction, in practice, between contributions and expenditures. For example, if an individual is limited in the amount of money s/he can contribute to a candidate’s campaign, the contributor can instead opt to use their money as an expenditure, which has no limit, in support of a candidate. The Court expressed concern of corruption and “buying elections,” but in actuality, there is a very thin line between a contribution limit and a campaign expenditure.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)

    “The First Amendment affords the broadest protection to such political expression in order ‘to assure [the] unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.'”

  • U.S., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

    Emphasizing the “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

  • U.S., United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)

    Rejecting a claim that burning a draft card was an act that was ‘symbolic speech’ protected by the First Amendment.

  • U.S., Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214 (1966)

    “There is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs […] of course includ[ing] discussions of candidates…”

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country.  Therefore, all state and federal courts are required to follow the Court’s Opinion.



The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:

Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback