By Bill Maurer
Right now, America is going through another election cycle, and with that comes a chorus of elected officials bemoaning wealthy contributors in elections. But most people do not realize that the attempts to cut down on political activities by the rich prevent average Americans from getting involved in the political process. The well-off will always be able to pay for the lawyers, accountants and consultants needed to participate in what is now the highly regulated industry of political campaigns. Restrictions on political activity almost always hurt the small grassroots speakers with little money to get their message out.
IJ is the only public interest law firm that consistently represents those who participate in politics without a lot of money. Whether it is Robin Farris in Pierce County, Wash., who tried to recall an elected official accused of serious mismanagement, or the small, informal group of friends in Oxford, Miss., who wanted to promote private property rights, IJ has been there to defend the rights of political speakers who do not have the money, power or prestige that elected officials and established political parties have. When people like Robin and the folks in Oxford saw their attempts to engage in the fundamental right to participate in elections frustrated by unreasonable governmental restrictions, they fought back, and with IJ’s help, they won.
But the battle continues. With every restriction on speech passed by politicians, those who seek to further regulate political activity immediately announce, “More needs to be done.” As IJ racks up victories striking down speech restrictions, our opponents have become more creative. Witness the response of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) to Robin’s victory. After Robin and IJ beat them in court, the PDC filed a complaint saying that IJ had made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to the recall campaign by representing Robin for free in her civil rights case. If representing plaintiffs in civil rights cases is a political contribution, then the government can regulate and restrict that representation just like a political contribution. The PDC then gets to restrict the people trying to stop them from violating constitutional rights.
A trial court judge has temporarily enjoined the PDC from trying to limit civil rights lawsuits against them, and the case is moving towards trial. But Americans should not have to go through such ordeals just to express themselves about, of all things, how their country is governed. When people are frozen out of having a say about their government, leaving the political playing field only to the rich and powerful, they can become alienated, apathetic or cynical—exactly the result campaign finance “reformers” say they are fighting against. As in most fields, piling regulations on political activity drives out new ideas, innovation and different viewpoints. If we do not want our political system to become just another over-regulated activity dragged down by government bureaucrats, we will need more victories over the censors in the years to come. And IJ will be there to make sure we get them.
Bill Maurer is the managing attorney of the IJ Washington office.