In his first official act as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, Trey Trainor is speaking out against hyper-technical rules that limit Americans’ right to free speech.
Trainor joined his colleagues on the commission in dismissing a complaint brought by the Campaign Legal Center, a left-wing organization aligned with the Democratic Party, against America Progress Now. In its complaint to the FEC, CLC accused APN of running $7,665 in Facebook ads supporting third-party candidates without including legally required disclaimers. Even though APN complied with Facebook’s requirements for political ads, such that it was clear who was funding the ads, CLC asked the federal speech regulatory body to punish them for failing to comply with technical requirements of federal election laws.
CLC attempted to paint APN as a “fake political group” and theorized that it might be backed by major political party operatives or a foreign government. However, as Trainor explained, APN was in fact “established by an unsophisticated individual trying to show his support for several third-party candidates” who “got tripped by the myriad regulations governing online political speech.”
In an apology letter to the FEC, the head of APN explained that he wanted to comply with all requirements but was confused by Federal election laws as they applied to online speech:
“I have never spent money in any election related matter previously and assumed that Facebook’s ‘political disclaimer/disclosure’ was all that was necessary. … The total amount spent supporting [a] small handful of candidates was only $2,467.54, and for all of the candidates the total ‘per candidate’ amount spent was only a few hundred dollars. I consistently hear in the media about the hundreds of millions that are spent on our elections, virtually all of which supports only the two major parties, I failed to realize that a spend as small as this would require any type of reporting. … Given the apparent obstacles and unknowns of participating in the election process in this manner (of which I am learning some of now), it is highly unlikely I will ever participate in it again.”
In a “statement of reasons” for his vote to dismiss a complaint against American Progress Now, Trainor explained that he was troubled by how the accused was treated by the commission. “I am troubled that as a result of the Respondent’s interaction with the FEC, he has expressed his disinclination to continue exercising his First Amendment right to engage in political speech,” wrote Trainor. “A person shouldn’t need to have to hire a lawyer to speak.”
Trainor cited a prior opinion of former FEC Chairman Don McGahn that noted “a troubling disparity in campaign finance law … rote enforcement of hyper-technical rules having an unfair impact on inexperienced political participants.”
Trainor was finally confirmed to the post in May, after first being nominated in September of 2017. In addition to serving as legal counsel for numerous Republican officials and conservative groups, including Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, he also advised the president’s campaign in 2016.