Prohibited Mass Mailings
The following information provides guidance on restrictions contained within the Act related to mass mailings sent at public expense under Sections 89001 - 89003. While it is not possible to address all types of mailings here, public agencies and elected officers are encouraged to request advice for specific guidance. When requesting advice on a specific item, a sample of the mailing must be provided. There are laws outside of the Act that may apply to certain mailings, such as the misuse of public funds, so it is important to also contact your agency’s legal counsel.
Which Mailings are Prohibited?
A mailing is prohibited under the Act if each of the following criteria is met, unless the item meets one or more exceptions.
- Delivery. A tangible item, such as a newsletter or brochure, is delivered, by any means, including by transmission of a fax, to a person’s residence, place of employment or business, or post office box. Note: Emails, website postings, text messages, and recorded telephone messages/robocalls are not considered tangible items and therefore, not subject to the Act’s mass mailing at public expense restrictions.
- Item Features an Elected Officer. The item sent either features an elected officer affiliated with the agency (by including the officer’s photo or signature, or singling out the officer by the manner his or her name or office is displayed), or the item includes a reference to an elected officer affiliated with the agency and the item is prepared or sent in cooperation with the elected officer.
- Public Moneys. Any of the costs of distribution are paid for with public moneys, or if public funds are not used for the actual distribution, in excess of $50 in public moneys is used to design, produce, or print the item and the design, production, or printing is done with the intent of sending the item other than as permitted by the Act.
- Mass Mailing. More than 200 substantially similar items are sent in a calendar month, excluding any item sent in response to an unsolicited request.
Permissible Mailings Except when Sent within 60 Days of the Officer's Election
Generally, mass mailings of types listed below are not prohibited by Section 89001. However, such mailings may not be sent within 60 days of an election by or on behalf of a candidate whose name will appear on the ballot at that election.
- Letterhead/Roster Listing. A mailing in which an elected officer’s name appears only in the letterhead or logotype of the stationery, forms, and envelopes of the agency, or in a roster listing containing the names of all elected officers of the agency. The names of all elected officers must appear in the same size, font type, color, and location. The item may not contain an elected officer’s photo, signature, or any other reference to the officer.
- Meeting Announcement. A public meeting announcement sent to an elected officer's constituents so long as the meeting is directly related to the elected officer’s governmental duties and he or she intends to attend. The item may not contain the elected officer’s photo or signature and may include only a single mention of the elected officer.
- Event Announcement. An announcement of any official agency event or events for which the agency is providing the use of its facilities or staff, or other financial support. The item may not contain the elected officer’s photo or signature and may include only a single mention of the elected officer.
- Business Cards. Business cards that do not contain an elected officer’s photo or more than one mention of the elected officer’s name.
Normal Agency Business Practices
The following items are not restricted by the Act’s mass mailing prohibition.
- Press releases sent to members of the media
- Any item sent in the normal course of business from one governmental entity or officer to another governmental entity or officer
- Any intra-agency communication sent in the normal course of business to employees, officers, deputies, and other staff
- Tax bills, checks, and similar documents, in any instance where use of the elected officer's name, office, title, or signature is necessary to the payment or collection of the funds
- A telephone directory, organization chart, or similar listing or roster that includes the names of elected officers as well as other individuals in the agency sending the mailing
Responses to unsolicited requests are not subject to the Act’s mass mailing restrictions. “Unsolicited request” means a written or oral communication that specifically requests a response and that is not requested or induced by the elected officer or any third person acting at the officer’s behest. If a person requests continuing information, an elected officer may send multiple responses directly related to that subject for up to 24 months.
A city councilmember received calls from 50 constituents with questions related to a nearby retail shopping center project. The councilmember may send a response (e.g., flyer), which directly addresses their questions, to those 50 people. The 50 flyers would not be subject to the Act’s mass mailing restrictions and therefore, could contain the councilmember’s photo and/or signature. In addition, the 50 flyers would not count toward the 200 item per calendar month limit, so the councilmember could send the flyer (or a substantially similar item) to up to 200 other constituents who did not request the information.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. A city would like to send a newsletter by email, which contains pictures of the mayor and city council members at a groundbreaking ceremony. Is this permissible?
A. Yes. Emails are not considered “tangible” and therefore, not subject to the Act’s mass mailing prohibitions even when sent within 60 days of an official’s election. However, there may be laws outside of the Political Reform Act that apply, such as the misuse of public funds.
Q. A State Senator plans to send a town hall meeting announcement by mail. One side of the item will include the meeting details and include one use of the Senator’s name. The reverse side will be prepared with the Senator’s name only in the return address of the mailer. Is the mailing permissible?
A. Yes, so long as the mailing is not sent within 60 days of an election for which the Senator is on the ballot. Each mention of the Senator’s name falls within applicable exceptions (meeting announcement and etterhead/envelope).
Q. A school district publishes a newsletter mentioning the activities of its elected board members, which is funded in part by district funds and in part through advertising revenues. Each month the newsletter is mailed to all employees of the school district, homes of the students, and various other community members. Is it permissible to include information related to various events at school sites throughout the district and note the school board members who were in attendance?
A. No. Assuming that more than 200 newsletters are mailed, this item meets the four criteria of a prohibited mass mailing.
Q. A City Chamber of Commerce sends a bi-monthly newsletter mentioning the names of city council members to its 500 members and certain other business contacts and city officials. The Chamber receives money directly from the city as part of the city’s budget for economic enhancement projects, and indirectly, through a lease subsidy. Would it be permissible for the Chamber to include photos of city council members in the newsletter?
A. Yes. Since the city does not expressly provide funding for the production, publishing, or distribution of the newsletter, the “public moneys” criteria is not met so the mailing is permissible.
Q. The State Treasurer wishes to advertise a college savings bond program by placing ads in newspapers of general circulation. Is this permissible?
A. Yes. A person who subscribes to newspapers or other periodicals published by persons other than elected officers shall be deemed to have made unsolicited requests for materials published in those subscription publications; therefore, the Act’s mass mailing restrictions do not apply provided the newspaper is not delivered to nonsubscribers.
Q. A county supervisor would like to send an announcement to each of her constituents’ homes with information about an upcoming special event sponsored by the county. One side of the mailer will be in English, the reverse side will be in Spanish, and the county supervisor’s name will be included on both sides. Is this mailing permissible?
A. Yes, so long as the mailing is not sent within 60 days of an election for which the supervisor is on the ballot. Identical items in two different languages would be considered two different mailings; therefore, the officer’s name may be mentioned once on each side.
Q. A city councilmember plans to send a mailer inviting constituents to a neighborhood meeting. The councilmember’s name is only mentioned once but the mailer also references the councilmember’s district. Is this mailing permissible?
A. No. The mention of the councilmember’s district is considered a second reference to the councilmember; therefore, the mailing is prohibited.
Q. A city councilmember would like to send a flyer on his letterhead to constituents who surround a particular retail shopping center. The councilmember’s name is included only in the letterhead, but the flyer includes other references to the councilmember such as “I” and “we.” Is this mailing permissible?
A. No. Although generally a mailing sent on an elected officer’s letterhead falls under the “letterhead” exception, this exception does not apply if the item makes any other reference to the elected officer. The Commission has determined that using pronouns such as “I” and “we” are considered additional references to the elected officer.
How to Request Advice
If you have questions about your obligations under the Act you can request advice directly from FPPC staff