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Billionaires want the Supreme Court to help them hide their SF campaign ad spending

The co-author of San Francisco’s ‘Sunlight on Dark Money’ law argues that voters deserve to know who’s really behind the political ads they see.

A billboard featuring a man in a white shirt and tie with "Believe in SF" and "accountability" text. There's a magnifying glass highlighting funders' names and amounts.
AI illustration by Jesse Rogala; photo courtesy Daniel Lurie campaign

By Jon Golinger

The billionaires are trying to hide from you.  

That’s what’s really behind a petition for review filed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Institute for Free Speech, which regularly intervenes in legal cases on behalf of conservatives. The group is seeking to strike down San Francisco’s groundbreaking ‘Sunlight on Dark Money’ campaign ad disclosure law. 

Billionaires and big corporations don’t seem to want voters to know when they’re paying for campaign ads about candidates and issues on the ballot. What are they so afraid of?

When 77% of San Francisco voters approved Proposition F, the Sunlight on Dark Money ballot measure in 2019, it was an important step toward empowering voters. I co-authored the measure along with former San Francisco Ethics Commission Chairman Peter Keane and worked to get it on the ballot and pass it with former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and then-Supervisor Gordon Mar. The goal was to fight back locally against the deluge of big money in the years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC that opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending.  

The measure strengthened truth-in-labeling rules for campaign ads by requiring local campaign ads to identify by name and donation amount their top three contributors of $5,000 or more. If any of those top three contributors are themselves political committees, the measure requires that the top two donors to those groups also be identified to make it harder to hide the true source of an ad’s funding. 

For the first time, this has included disclosure of the biggest backers of shell committees if they are a top campaign-ad funder. These shell committees, often given innocuous-sounding names like ‘San Franciscans for San Francisco,’ have become shields commonly used by billionaires and corporations to hide their true funders. The Sunlight on Dark Money law has made it far more difficult for these power players to hide.

However, the Institute for Free Speech has noticed this progress and now wants to reverse it. IFS and its predecessor organization, the Center for Competitive Politics, have filed lawsuits and amicus briefs in several cases seeking to eliminate campaign finance reforms such as Citizens United and v. FEC, creating the entities now known as super PACs.   

In San Francisco, IFS sued in 2022 to overturn the Sunlight on Dark Money law, asserting that its disclosure requirements are an excessive imposition on free speech in violation of the First Amendment because the disclosures could take up too much space on campaign ads with information that voters don’t really care about. The group claims it could also discourage big donors from giving at all because they prefer to give anonymously.  

These specious arguments to strike down San Francisco’s law failed in federal district court and failed again when IFS appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now IFS is making its pitch to the Supreme Court. 

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is due in mid-June to submit its response opposing IFS’s petition for review of the case, which was filed in February. Conservative groups such as the Americans for Prosperity have filed briefs supporting IFS’s position. 

We’ll find out whether the court will take up the case after its summer recess. 

If it does, the case could impact donor disclosure laws not just in San Francisco, but nationwide.

In the meantime, San Francisco voters face a flood of campaign ads making all sorts of claims. How much weight to give these ads is a choice every voter must make for themselves. The Sunlight on Dark Money law is working because it helps voters know the true source of funding behind campaign ads so that they can consider the merits of the messages accordingly.

Jon Golinger is the democracy advocate for Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that fights for the public interest in Washington, D.C.

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