Riley v. Nat'l Fed'n of the Blind
487 U.S. 781 (1988)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Riley v. Nat'l Fed'n of the Blind, 487 U.S. 781 (1988)

Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina

No. 87-328

Argued March 23, 1988

Decided June 29, 1988

487 U.S. 781


The North Carolina Charitable Solicitations Act defines the prima facie "reasonable fee" that a professional fundraiser may charge according to a three-tiered schedule. A fee up to 20% of receipts collected is deemed reasonable. A fee between 20% and 35% is deemed unreasonable upon a showing that the solicitation at issue did not involve the

"dissemination of information, discussion, or advocacy relating to public issues as directed by the [charitable organization] which is to benefit from the solicitation."

A fee exceeding 35% is presumed unreasonable, but the fundraiser may rebut the presumption by showing that the fee was necessary either because the solicitation involved the dissemination of information or advocacy on public issues directed by the charity, or because otherwise the charity's ability to raise money or communicate would be significantly diminished. The Act also provides that a professional fundraiser must disclose to potential donors the average percentage of gross receipts actually turned over to charities by the fundraiser for all charitable solicitations conducted in the State within the previous 12 months. Finally, the Act provides that professional fundraisers may not solicit without an approved license, whereas volunteer fundraisers may solicit immediately upon submitting a license application. Appellees, a coalition of professional fundraisers, charitable organizations, and potential donors, brought suit against appellant government officials charged with the enforcement of the Act (hereinafter collectively referred to as North Carolina or the State), seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. The District Court ruled that the challenged provisions on their face unconstitutionally infringed upon freedom of speech, and enjoined their enforcement. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. North Carolina's three-tiered definition of "reasonable fees" unconstitutionally infringes upon freedom of speech. The solicitation of charitable contributions is protected speech, and using percentages to decide the legality of the fundraiser's fee is not narrowly tailored to the State's

Page 487 U. S. 782

interest in preventing fraud. Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 444 U. S. 620; Secretary of State of Maryland v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U. S. 947. North Carolina cannot meaningfully distinguish its statute from those previously held invalid on the ground that it has a motivating interest, not present in the prior cases, to ensure that the maximum amount of funds reach the charity, or to guarantee that the fee charged charities is not unreasonable. This provision is not merely an economic regulation, with no First Amendment implication, to be tested only for rationality; instead, the regulation must be considered as one burdening speech. The State's asserted justification that charities' speech must be regulated for their own benefit is unsound. The First Amendment mandates the presumption that speakers, not the government, know best both what they want to say and how to say it. Also unavailing is the State's contention that the Act's flexibility more narrowly tailors it to the State's asserted interests than the laws invalidated in the prior cases. The State's asserted additional interests are both constitutionally invalid and insufficiently related to a percentage-based test. And while a State's interest in protecting charities and the public from fraud is a sufficiently substantial interest to justify a narrowly tailored regulation, the North Carolina statute, even with its flexibility, is not sufficiently tailored to such interest. Pp. 487 U. S. 787-795.

2. North Carolina's requirement that professional fundraisers disclose to potential donors, before an appeal for funds, the percentage of charitable contributions collected during the previous 12 months that were actually turned over to charity is unconstitutional. This provision of the Act is a content-based regulation because mandating speech that a speaker would not otherwise make necessarily alters the speech's content. Even assuming that the mandated speech, in the abstract, is merely "commercial," it does not retain its commercial character when it is inextricably intertwined with the otherwise fully protected speech involved in charitable solicitations, and thus the mandated speech is subject to the test for fully protected expression, not the more deferential commercial speech principles. Nor is a deferential test to be applied on the theory that the First Amendment interest in compelled speech is different than the interest in compelled silence. The difference is without constitutional significance, for the First Amendment guarantees "freedom of speech," a term necessarily comprising the decision of both what to say and what not to say. Moreover, for First Amendment purposes, a distinction cannot be drawn between compelled statements of opinion and, as here, compelled statements of "fact," since either form of compulsion burdens protected speech. Thus, North Carolina's content-based regulation is subject to exacting First Amendment scrutiny. The State's interest in informing donors how the money they contribute is spent to

Page 487 U. S. 783

dispel the alleged misperception that the money they give to professional fundraisers goes in greater-than-actual proportion to benefit charity, is not sufficiently weighty, and the means chosen to accomplish it are unduly burdensome, and not narrowly tailored. Pp. 487 U. S. 795-801.

3. North Carolina's licensing requirement for professional fundraisers is unconstitutional. A speaker's rights are not lost merely because compensation is received, and the State's asserted power to license professional fundraisers carries with it (unless properly constrained) the power directly and substantially to affect the speech they utter. Consequently, the statute is subject to First Amendment scrutiny. Generally, speakers need not obtain a license to speak. Even assuming that the State's interest in regulating those who solicit money justifies requiring fundraisers to obtain a license before soliciting, such a regulation must provide that the licensor will, within a specified brief period, either issue a license or go to court. That requirement is not met here, for the North Carolina Act permits a delay without limit. Nor can the State assert that its history of issuing licenses quickly constitutes a practice effectively constraining the licensor's discretion, since such history relates to a time (prior to amendment of the Act) when professional fundraisers were permitted to solicit as soon as their applications were filed. Pp. 487 U. S. 801-804.

817 F.2d 102, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, in Parts I, II, and III, of which STEVENS, J., joined, and in all but n. 11 of which SCALIA, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 487 U. S. 803. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 487 U. S. 804. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 487 U. S. 804.

Page 487 U. S. 784

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