By Paul Avelar
Through our Citizen Speech Initiative, IJ has undertaken a nationwide fight against “campaign finance” laws that restrict grassroots speech, political involvement and democracy. These laws, which are often most pernicious at the state and local level, affect everyone who wants to speak about politics. IJ is now advancing its fight with our new Mississippi citizen speech case.
Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell are likeminded friends and neighbors who live in Mississippi—one of just seven states that has not reformed its eminent domain laws since Kelo. But in the 2011 election, Mississippians have the chance to vote on Initiative 31, which will create much-needed reforms.
These friends merely wanted to inform their neighbors about Initiative 31 and government abuse of eminent domain—an important issue that affects us all. Instead, they are learning a lesson in government abridgment of free speech—also an important issue that affects us all.
Under Mississippi law, anytime two or more people join together to spend more than $200 to support or oppose a ballot issue, they become a fully regulated political committee. They must register with the state; appoint a director and treasurer; file monthly, annual and other periodic reports of their activities; and keep track of every dollar that is spent or contributed—including the gas used to drive to a copy shop to pick up flyers. Even an individual who spends more than $200 has to report the same information.
These requirements are so burdensome and expensive to administer that the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled them unconstitutional for corporations and unions. And they are so complex that they create traps for the unwary by criminalizing free speech. Even innocent mistakes can result in fines and worse.
These laws also require people to disclose personal information—names, addresses, telephone numbers, occupations and employers—to the government. The government then puts all that information on the Internet. This can open people to retaliation from employers or political opponents and scares people away from political involvement.
In conjunction with the lawsuit, IJ also released Full Disclosure: How Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws Fail to Inform Voters and Stifle Public Debate, by David M. Primo, Ph.D. This report is the culmination of IJ’s research on mandatory disclosure—a one-stop source for information about what mandatory disclosure does and does not do. Through an original experiment, Dr. Primo showed that in a world where information about politics is everywhere, any additional benefit from mandatory disclosure is virtually nonexistent. Thus, mandatory disclosure does not do the things reformers promise; it only imposes onerous burdens on speech and scares people away from political engagement—resulting in less speech.
In America, the only thing you should need to speak is an opinion. But thanks to burdensome campaign finance laws, you also need a lawyer. This is why IJ is here to stand with citizens like Vance, Sharon, Matt, Alison and Stan, and to stand up for citizen speech.
Paul Avelar is an IJ Arizona Chapter staff attorney.