By Steve Simpson
In November, a federal appellate court ruled that six neighbors in the tiny subdivision of Parker North, Colo., should not have been forced to register with the government and comply with burdensome campaign finance laws simply for opposing a ballot issue involving the annexation of their neighborhood.
In Sampson v. Buescher, a panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously recognized the severe burden Colorado’s campaign finance laws imposed on grassroots political activists. The court ruled, “The average citizen cannot be expected to master on his or her own the many campaign financial-disclosure requirements set forth in Colorado’s constitution, the Campaign Act, and the Secretary of State’s Rules Concerning Campaign and Political Finance.”
IJ client Karen Sampson said, “This ruling is a complete vindication of what we’ve said all along. Campaign regulations and red tape serve no purpose in local ballot issue elections other than to make political participation more difficult for ordinary citizens.”
For a brief and funny video discussing this lawsuit, visit IJ’s site: www.ij.org/2504.
Sampson and her neighbors first learned about Colorado’s campaign finance laws when they organized to oppose the annexation of their neighborhood into the adjacent town of Parker. The group talked to neighbors, circulated postcards and planted yard signs. But in Colorado and other states, when two or more people spend more than $200 to speak out about a ballot issue, they must register with the state as an “issue committee” and comply with rules and regulations that rival the tax laws in their complexity. Issue committees must appoint a registered agent, open separate bank accounts, and disclose all contributions and expenditures of more than $20 for things like yard signs and fliers. Because Sampson and the others failed to register with the government before speaking, the principal proponents of the annexation used Colorado’s campaign finance laws to sue them.
This ruling means that grassroots political activists in Colorado and the other states in the 10th Circuit can speak freely without fear of being sued by their political opponents. The Court recognized that states have little or no interest in requiring groups that simply wish to speak out for and against ballot issues to register and comply with complicated disclosure rules.
Freedom of speech means that citizens, not government, get to decide whether to disclose their identities when they speak out about ballot issues. For those who don’t trust anonymous speech, the solution is to not listen to it.
The court’s decision is supported by IJ’s strategic research. Campaign Finance Red Tape, Dr. Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri asked 255 people to fill out the registration and disclosure forms for a small political group. Not one participant managed to do so correctly. The average correct score was just 41 percent.
Each person could have been subject to fines and penalties in real life. Like those in Parker North, participants found the red tape was “worse than the IRS!” and said it would make them less likely to get involved in politics. Milyo’s research was featured on ABC’s 20/20.
This is yet another important victory in the Institute for Justice’s efforts to protect free speech from government-imposed restrictions in the guise of so-called campaign finance “reforms.” In March, IJ, working together with the Center for Competitive Politics, won in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of SpeechNow.org, a group of individuals who are now free to pool their money without limits to run independent political ads for or against candidates based on their support for the First Amendment. As of last month, at least 50 new SpeechNow-styled groups were established to participate in the 2010 election. Last year, IJ successfully challenged Florida’s “electioneering communications” law—the broadest regulation of political speech in the nation. And on November 23, the U.S. Supreme Court will have considered whether to accept the Institute for Justice’s challenge to Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections” system.
With all of this progress, plus the launch of IJ’s Citizen Speech endeavor, IJ continues to set the pace and the direction in the fight for free speech.
Steve Simpson is an IJ senior attorney.