Stifling Citizen Speech In Arizona

February 1, 2012

By Steve Simpson

The Institute for Justice won an important victory for free speech on November 3, 2011, when we secured a preliminary injunction against Arizona campaign finance laws that prevented Dina Galassini, a resident of Fountain Hills, Ariz., from holding a peaceful protest against a town bond issue.

In early October, Dina sent an email to 23 friends and neighbors criticizing the bond issue and asking them to join her in speaking out against it. She scheduled two protests on street corners so she and her friends could express their opposition to the bond issue to other residents of Fountain Hills. Little did Dina know that in Arizona, like many other states, you need more than an opinion to join with others to speak about politics—you also need a lawyer.

Within a week of sending her email, Dina received a letter from the town clerk urging her to “cease any campaign related activities” until she had registered as a “political committee” and complied with “all of the requirements associated with a PAC.” (A PAC is a Political Action Committee.) According to the clerk, although an individual acting alone is not a political committee, “if any additional person or persons join the effort,” they must register as a PAC “prior to any electioneering taking place.”

Under Arizona law, even groups that intend to spend less than $500 must register with the government before distributing any literature, making signs or passing out flyers. Even if they do not intend to raise funds from others, the fact that their speech has value is enough to qualify them as PACs. Under the law, they must appoint a treasurer and chairman; they must designate a bank account; they must put notices on their signs stating that they were “paid for” by a PAC; they must track their activities and be prepared to open their files to the town; and they must file a notice of termination when the election is over.

Dina was stunned. She never thought the simple act of joining with others to voice her opposition to a local bond issue could land her in legal hot water. She cancelled her protests and began speaking to attorneys.

On October 26, 2011, the Institute for Justice filed suit against the town of Fountain Hills for violating Dina’s First Amendment rights. On November 3, 2011, after a full evidentiary hearing, a federal court in Phoenix enjoined the enforcement of the campaign finance laws against Dina and her friends. The Court concluded that Dina was likely to succeed in her case against the town and that requiring her to register with the town and comply with red tape simply to speak out chilled her right to freedom of speech.

Although the laws prevented Dina from speaking out when she wanted, she was able to hold her protest two days before the end of mail-in voting on November 8 and her side of this fight ultimately won. Not everyone is lucky enough to get free legal representation so quickly, however, so Dina, with IJ’s help, will press forward in her case for a ruling that will free up all Arizonans from burdensome campaign finance laws.

Steve Simpson is an IJ senior attorney.

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