A Double Victory for the First Amendment

December 1, 2013

For public-interest litigators, there’s only one thing better than winning a case: winning two cases. We had exactly that experience in late September when federal district courts in Mississippi and Arizona handed IJ two major First Amendment victories within hours of each other.

Both cases are part of IJ’s Citizen Speech campaign, a multi-state effort to protect the right of grassroots groups to speak out on important political issues without getting tied up in campaign finance red tape.

The Mississippi case, Justice v. Hosemann, involved a challenge to burdensome “political committee” laws that applied to any individual or group that spent more than $200 to talk about an initiative to amend Mississippi’s Constitution. The law was challenged by five friends from Oxford, Miss.—Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell—who simply wanted to join together and speak out in favor of then-Initiative 31, an effort that would provide Mississippi citizens with greater protection from eminent domain abuse.

The Arizona case, Galassini v. Town of Fountain Hills, involved a similar law. In that case, Dina Galassini sent an email to 23 friends and neighbors, inviting them to join her in a street-corner protest against a $44 million road bond on the 2011 ballot. Almost immediately she received a letter from the town clerk telling her to stop speaking until she registered with the town as a political committee and complied with Arizona’s campaign finance laws.

The burdens that laws like Mississippi’s and Arizona’s impose on grassroots groups are well documented. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court considers such laws so burdensome that it has equated them with a “ban on speech,” even for well-funded corporations and unions. Nevertheless, courts across the country routinely uphold these laws, leading to the absurd result that grassroots groups are subject to regulations considered unconstitutionally burdensome for General Motors or the AFL-CIO.

But in classic IJ fashion, the Citizen Speech team was up to the challenge. We took on the adverse precedent, developed extensive evidentiary records, wrote top-notch briefs, and presented confident, persuasive oral arguments.

Ultimately, all that hard work paid off. In Justice, Judge Sharion Aycock ruled that Mississippi’s political committee law could not constitutionally apply to a small group like the plaintiffs’, while in Galassini, Judge James Teilborg went even further and held that Arizona’s definition of “political committee” was so overbroad and incomprehensible that it was unconstitutional in its entirety.

These twin victories are a testament to the incredible things that can be achieved when cases are litigated The IJ Way and judges are engaged. These rulings also make it more likely that the Supreme Court will eventually review this issue and set nationwide precedent holding that political committee laws are unconstitutional for independent political speakers. Until then, IJ will defend these victories in the appellate courts and continue the fight to free citizen speech.

Paul Avelar is an IJ attorney.

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