Phoenix—Late Friday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona finalized its decision that the key component of Arizona’s campaign finance scheme is unconstitutional. The court’s judgment holds that Arizona’s definition of “political committee” is unconstitutionally vague and that regulations on small political committees are unconstitutionally burdensome. Because the definition of political committee is unconstitutional, laws that apply to political committees—most of Arizona’s campaign finance laws—cannot be constitutionally enforced.
The case began more than three years ago when, in October 2011, Fountain Hills resident Dina Galassini sent an email to 23 of her friends and neighbors to join her in two sign-waving protests against a bond that was to be voted on by Fountain Hills residents. “Little did she realize,” as District Court Judge James A. Teilborg noted, “that she was about to feel the heavy hand of government in a way that she never imagined.”
Dina’s email found its way to election officials in Fountain Hills, who told her that Arizona law prohibited her from organizing her protest or speaking unless she first registered with the government as a political committee. By registering, Dina would need to abide by the numerous legal requirements imposed on political committees. With help from the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, Dina went to court and won her right to hold a protest during the 2011 election. Friday’s judgment against the state, which follows an earlier judgment agreed to by Fountain Hills, means that Dina will be free to speak in future Arizona elections as well.
“I was stunned to learn that I needed to register with the government just to talk to people in my community about the bond,” said Dina. “All I could think was, ‘How can this be allowed under our First Amendment?’ I am glad the judge ruled that these laws are unconstitutional and that this decision protects other citizens from these abusive and vague laws that were created to chill their speech.”
“In this country all you should need to speak about politics is an opinion, but thanks to campaign finance laws, even the smallest groups of friends and neighbors need lawyers and accountants too,” said IJ Attorney Paul Avelar. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment does not allow laws that chill speech through vague requirements and heavy administrative burdens. Until now, however, Arizona persisted in enforcing such laws.”
Arizona’s definition of political committee is a single sentence of 183 words with numerous confusing clauses and sub-clauses (the full definition is set forth below). Throughout the case, lawyers and election officials for various governments offered conflicting interpretations of the definition, and the judge could not make sense of the statutory language. “Such vagueness is not permitted by the Constitution,” Judge Teilborg ruled, because people—both speakers and government regulators—“must guess at the law’s meaning and will differ as to its application.”
The consequences of becoming a political committee, inadvertently or intentionally, are severe, as Arizona imposes heavy burdens on political committees. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the burdens of being a political committee are so onerous they cannot be imposed even on large corporations and unions. Even Arizona’s own documents recognize numerous “pitfalls” in being a political committee.
The court’s ruling affects more than just Dina—every Arizonan engaging in core political speech can speak more freely now. Since nearly every statute regulating political speech in Arizona speaks in terms of political committees, those statutes are now meaningless without a constitutional definition of political committee.
“As campaign finance regulations have proliferated, courts across the country have to wrestle with laws like these,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “The First Amendment’s protection of free speech and association is hollow unless courts meaningfully engage with the real-world effects of these laws. Unfortunately, some courts are still failing their basic responsibility to defend the free speech rights of ordinary Americans.”
The government may now appeal Judge Teilborg’s judgment. This case is part of the Institute for Justice’s Citizen Speech Initiative, a national effort to restore full protection to free political speech that has included cases in Colorado, Mississippi and Florida. In addition, IJ was successful at the U.S. Supreme Court in a challenge to Arizona’s matching funds provision of the Citizens Clean Elections Act.
For more information on this lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/fountain-hills-arizona-speech. For more information on IJ’s work defending free speech, visit www.ij.org/cases/firstamendment. Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.
The definition of political committee, as found in Arizona Revised Statutes § 16-901(19):
“‘Political committee’ means a candidate or any association or combination of persons that is organized, conducted or combined for the purpose of influencing the result of any election or to determine whether an individual will become a candidate for election in this state or in any county, city, town, district or precinct in this state, that engages in political activity in behalf of or against a candidate for election or retention or in support of or opposition to an initiative, referendum or recall or any other measure or proposition and that applies for a serial number and circulates petitions and, in the case of a candidate for public office except those exempt pursuant to § 16-903, that receives contributions or makes expenditures of more than two hundred fifty dollars in connection therewith, notwithstanding that the association or combination of persons may be part of a larger association, combination of persons or sponsoring organization not primarily organized, conducted or combined for the purpose of influencing the result of any election in this state or in any county, city, town or precinct in this state. Political committee includes the following types of committees:
- A candidate’s campaign committee.
- A separate, segregated fund established by a corporation or labor organization pursuant to § 16-920, subsection A, paragraph 3.
- A committee acting in support of or opposition to the qualification, passage or defeat of a ballot measure, question or proposition.
- A committee organized to circulate or oppose a recall petition or to influence the result of a recall election.
- A political party.
- A committee organized for the purpose of making independent expenditures.
- A committee organized in support of or opposition to one or more candidates.
- A political organization.
- An exploratory committee.”