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The Taxing Truth of Campaign Finance Laws

By Paul Sherman

As April 15th gets closer, millions of Americans will struggle with the forms, rules and anxiety that go along with filing their taxes. But imagine dealing with all that red tape every time you wanted to talk about politics. Absurd as it sounds, this is the reality of so-called campaign finance “reform,” which has smothered grassroots political speech with regulations that survey respondents call “worse than the IRS.” And red tape is only part of the problem. Many campaign finance laws go further, placing direct limits on the right to associate with like-minded people and speak effectively.

This is where the Institute for Justice stepped in. In just a short time, IJ has established itself as a national leader in the fight against unconstitut ional campaign finance laws. Here is a sample of our recent work:

• In Arizona, we’re challenging a system of taxpayer-funded elections that discourages political speech by private groups and punishes candidates who refuse taxpayer money. As we prepare for trial, the judge has already indicated that there is a “strong likelihood” that the law is unconstitutional.

• In late October of this past year—right before the election—we won a blockbuster court ruling that temporarily prohibited Florida from enforcing its campaign finance law. We represent a national taxpayer-advocacy group, a university student group and a coalition of homeowner associations that are challenging a campaign finance law that requires them to register with the government and file detailed financial reports if they merely mention the name of a pending ballot issue. Having secured our clients’ right to speak, we are now waiting for the court to rule on our request to permanently strike this law down.

• We are challenging similar laws in Colorado, where we brought two cases, one on behalf of the Independence Institute, the other representing a group of neighbors, both of whom were sued by their political opponents for speaking out about ballot issues without first registering with the state. The cases are currently on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, respectively.

• Finally, in Washington, D.C., IJ and the Center for Competitive Politics represent SpeechNow.org in a case experts are calling “among the most important campaign finance cases of the decade.” SpeechNow.org is a group of citizens that simply wants to run independent ads supporting or opposing political candidates based on their position on the First Amendment, but federal law makes it all but impossible to raise the money to do so. Thanks to a unique procedure in federal law, SpeechNow.org’s case is on the fast-track to a hearing before all nine active judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the last stop before the Supreme Court.

By combining these cases with our expert media relations, “friend of the court” briefs and groundbreaking strategic research, the Institute for Justice is redefining the terms of the campaign finance debate. And, as with all our cases, we are doing it “The IJ Way”—putting a human face on the issue by showing courts and the public the terrible real-world effects these laws have on ordinary Americans who want nothing more than to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Paul Sherman is an IJ staff attorney.

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