FEC Urged to Deny Stephen Colbert’s Request to Expand ‘Press Exemption’ in Comments Filed by Campaign Legal Center & Democracy 21


The Campaign Legal Center[1], together with Democracy 21, today urged the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to deny a request by comedian Stephen Colbert to significantly expand the so-called “press-exemption” to a number of federal election laws.  The two organizations filed comments with the FEC in response to an advisory opinion request by Mr. Colbert seeking the FEC’s opinion as to whether the Viacom corporation, which owns, produces and distributes his television show, The Colbert Report, may pay for a variety of expenses of his Colbert Super PAC without disclosing any of the expenses as in-kind contributions to the PAC under the “press exemption.”

“Although we recognize that Mr. Colbert submitted his advisory opinion in the spirit of political comedy, an opinion by the FEC permitting all that Mr. Colbert requests would have a sweeping and damaging impact on disclosure laws and the public’s right to know about campaign finance activities,” said Paul S. Ryan, FEC Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center.  “Many television show hosts who are serious politicians have PACs that could reap great financial benefit from the expansion of the scope of the ‘press exemption’ to cover the costs of independent expenditure ads made for their federal PACs and the payment of such PACs’ administrative expenses.”

For example, Sarah Palin has Sarah PAC, Mike Huckabee has Huck PAC, Newt Gingrich has American Solutions PAC, Rick Santorum has America’s Foundations PAC—and all are or recently were, television hosts or commentators.  An opinion from the FEC granting all that Mr. Colbert requests would permit the corporate media employer of these individuals to make unlimited, undisclosed contributions to their PACs under the guise of the “press exemption.”  There is no legal justification for such a radical evisceration of our disclosure laws.

“The ‘press exemption’ in the campaign finance laws simply does not apply to allow a corporation like Viacom to secretly finance independent ads for Mr. Colbert’s Super PAC, nor does it allow Viacom to secretly pay for the administrative costs of the Colbert Super PAC,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “For the FEC to rule otherwise on the Colbert advisory opinion request, would result in the Commission opening up a gaping loophole in the disclosure laws.”

While some of Mr. Colbert’s proposed activities would fall within the scope of the “press exemption,” some clearly do not.  The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 urged the FEC to make clear that neither (1) Viacom’s costs associated with producing political ads for Colbert Super PAC to be “air[ed] as paid advertisements on other shows and networks,” nor (2) Viacom’s payment of the PAC’s administrative costs (e.g., preparing and filing campaign finance reports with the FEC) would fall within the “press exemption.”

Federal campaign finance law defines “contribution” to include “anything of value” given to a PAC and makes clear that “the provision of any goods or services without charge . . . is a contribution.”  Federal PACs are required to disclose all contributions received.

However, federal law exempts from the definition of “contribution” and, therefore, from disclosure requirements, “[a]ny cost incurred in covering or carrying any news story, commentary, or editorial.”  Part of the FEC’s test for applying this so-called “press exemption” requires that the press entity be acting in its “legitimate press function”.

The production of political ads for a federal PAC and the payment of a PAC’s administrative expenses do not constitute legitimate press functions and, consequently, are beyond the scope of the “press exemption.”  These expenses should not be exempt from campaign finance disclosure.

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[1] Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter recused himself in this matter and thus took no part in the Campaign Legal Center’s consideration of this matter.