IJ Launches Nationwide Defense of Citizen Speech

December 1, 2010

Under the First Amendment, the only thing you should need to talk about politics is an opinion. After all, as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, the First Amendment was designed to protect a marketplace of ideas that is “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Yet across the country, ordinary Americans find their right to associate with one another and speak out on the most important political issues of the day stifled by burdensome regulations.

Consider Nathan Worley, Pat Wayman and John Scolaro. At least once a week, these three talk politics as part of a Sarasota-area political group. But when a controversial constitutional amendment made it onto the Florida ballot, they decided it was time to take political action.

Nathan, Pat and John were worried about proposed Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution, which, if passed, would require municipalities to submit all changes to their comprehensive land-use plans to a referendum. Nathan and the others feared that this costly and time-consuming requirement would devastate Florida’s economy, prolonging and deepening the current recession. To prevent this, they wanted to pool a modest amount of money to run a simple radio ad before the November election, urging Florida voters to reject Amendment 4—an amendment that ultimately was defeated.

Unfortunately, Nathan and the others could not simply call up the radio station and place their ad because Florida made doing so illegal. Under Florida’s campaign finance laws, these three could not join together and spend more than $500 to speak to the public unless they first registered with the state as a “political committee” and complied with all of the regulations that political candidates hire lawyers and accountants to deal with. These laws are so onerous that earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that identical federal laws are unconstitutionally burdensome even for corporations and unions.

Laws that are unconstitutionally burdensome for well-heeled institutions like General Motors and the AFL-CIO are unconstitutionally burdensome for ordinary Americans. That is why Nathan, Pat and John are fighting back.

On September 29, they joined with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit seeking to strike down Florida’s unconstitutional campaign finance laws. Their lawsuit, Worley v. Roberts, is the first in the Institute for Justice’s new nationwide effort to ensure that groups of ordinary Americans have the freedom to band together to amplify their voices without having to deal with burdensome red tape.

Although Nathan and the others never had the opportunity to make their voices heard before the election—a federal judge denied a motion that would have allowed them to speak while their lawsuit was pending—Florida voters nonetheless resoundingly rejected Amendment 4 on November 2. Despite having been silenced, Nathan and the others will continue their legal fight to ensure that they and all Floridians can speak freely in future elections.

In addition to filing this lawsuit, IJ released a groundbreaking report on how burdensome campaign finance laws stifle grassroots speech (see next page) and sent letters to government officials nationwide urging them to bring their states’ campaign finance laws in line with Citizens United, so that grassroots groups of citizens can enjoy the same freedom to speak in elections as corporations and unions.

Participation in political debate is not a privilege reserved for political insiders who can afford to retain lawyers and accountants; it is a right that belongs to all Americans. We aim to restore this fundamental principle and ensure that all Americans can speak freely about the issues that matter most to them.

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