Taking on FL’s Political Speech Police

December 1, 2008

One would think that civic groups would be free to discuss important political issues. After all, free political speech is among the foundational principles protected by the First Amendment. But if you live in Florida, you would be woefully wrong.

Thankfully, the Institute for Justice is on the case.

On October 8, 2008, IJ filed suit against the Florida Secretary of State and the Florida Elections Commission. Joined by a community group, a college club and a national watchdog organization—the Broward Coalition, the University of Florida College Libertarians and the National Taxpayers Union, respectively—we are fighting Florida’s regulatory red tape that is shutting ordinary citizens out of politics.

On October 29, we achieved an important first-round victory when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction suspending Florida’s law and freeing our clients and others like them to speak before the November election.

Under what amounts to the Sunshine State’s statewide “no speech zone,” virtually all speech about candidates or pending ballot issues is restricted. The state considers any group that merely mentions a candidate or ballot issue in a paid communication distributed to the public to be an “electioneering communications organization.” An individual that spends $100 is caught by these laws, too.

Once captured, a group must register its speech with the government. It must then appoint a campaign treasurer, designate a bank depository, make regular reports, record expenditures and disclose all its donors. Even more alarming, any violations can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and even jail time.

The Broward Coalition—a group of condominium owners, homeowner associations and community organizations near Ft. Lauderdale—puts out a monthly newsletter dedicated to helping its members and the larger community make decisions about issues that affect them locally, statewide and nationally. In the lead-up to the November election, the Coalition wanted to mention some of the statewide ballot issues. But as an all-volunteer group with a tight budget, the Coalition could not afford to spend the time or money to comply with the law. Without the preliminary injunction, the Coalition would have had to remain silent.

Florida’s law chills the speech of other groups as well. The UF College Libertarians planned to advertise campus talks by local liberty-minded candidates, but they could not mention a candidate’s name if the communication reaches 1,000 potential voters. The National Taxpayers Union had to leave Florida off its annual guide reviewing the tax implications of various state ballot issues.

Our clients and other community groups add valuable voices to the public debate. Although political pros can hire an army of lawyers and accountants, ordinary citizens and small groups do not have the experience or the resources to navigate the complex web of regulations, which means that politics becomes simply an insider’s game. We end up with less political speech and less-informed voters.

Florida’s political speech law demonstrates how the nation’s campaign finance laws have grown until they have swallowed the First Amendment whole. Fortunately Judge Stephen Mickle recognized that fact.

And with committed clients and a dedicated legal team—led by Senior Attorney Bert Gall—the Institute for Justice plans to bring this law to a permanent end.

Valerie Bayham is an IJ staff attorney.

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