Thanks to IJ litigation, Colorado has become a major battleground in the fight to free political speech from campaign finance restrictions. Colorado’s laws, like those in many states, tie up speech about issues on the ballot in a dizzying array of legal requirements and burdensome red tape—making it nearly impossible for grassroots groups and nonprofits to speak out without an army of lawyers and accountants.
IJ achieved a partial victory on behalf of one such group in September, when a federal judge ruled that Karen Sampson and five of her neighbors in the small subdivision of Parker North, Colo., had been wrongfully sued for putting up yard signs, sending flyers and talking with neighbors about opposing the proposed annexation of their neighborhood into a nearby town.
The two lead proponents of annexation had threatened the group with “investigation, scrutinization and sanctions” for campaign finance violations. Those supposed violations amounted to failing to register as an “issue committee” and not filing regular reports that rival IRS forms in their complexity.
The judge recognized that the lawsuit had little to do with enforcing the law and everything to do with shutting the group up. And that’s exactly what Colorado’s campaign finance laws make possible by empowering anyone in the state to sue anyone else for violating the law.
Unfortunately, the judge left in place the very law that made the harassing lawsuit possible, practically inviting similar abuses in the future. Without any legal analysis and ignoring evidence in the case, the court’s ruling let stand Colorado’s complicated regulations that bind even simple grassroots advocacy in red tape.
To fully vindicate the right to speak freely, IJ and the Parker North neighbors are appealing the ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
As Karen said, “No one should be afraid to speak about issues or politics for fear of being sued, and no one should have to hire a lawyer to plant yard signs. We’re fighting this law because we want to make sure free speech is protected and that no one else has to go through what we did.”
Indeed, others in Colorado have found themselves sued for their speech. In 2005, the Independence Institute, a nonprofit, free-market think tank in Golden, Colo., was sued for speaking out against two tax-raising referenda and failing to register as an issue committee.
Just as with the Parker North neighbors, the Independence Institute was sued by an activist on the other side of the issue. Incredibly, more than 500 Colorado nonprofits endorsed the two referenda, but only the Independence Institute was sued for its speech.
IJ stepped in to challenge Colorado’s campaign finance laws on the Independence Institute’s behalf, and a state appellate court heard oral argument in that case in September.
Both cases illustrate the danger of allowing government to regulate political speech.
“Campaign finance laws invite political operatives to abuse the system to silence opponents,” said IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson, the lead attorney on both cases. “The First Amendment was designed to encourage political speech and participation, but that’s exactly what laws like Colorado’s are suppressing.”
Not only do campaign finance laws stifle speech by tying it up in red tape, they have led to the spread of politics-via-litigation as political debates increasingly move out of the voting booth and into the courtroom.
That’s not what America’s Founders intended and that is what IJ’s campaign finance litigation is determined to stop.
Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.