Institute for Justice Launches Citizens Speech Campaign To Protect Free Speech Rights During Elections

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 29, 2010

Arlington, Va.—Freedom of speech and freedom of association are so important that they are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet across the nation, in nearly every state, government regulation stifles the ability of citizens to exercise their rights to speak and to associate with one another and discuss the most pressing issues of the day. The culprit? So-called “campaign finance” laws.

Describing the impact of campaign finance laws on ordinary Americans, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Steve Simpson said, “It turns out that in America, you need more than an opinion to speak out about politics. Today, you also need a lawyer.”

To remedy this, the Institute for Justice launched its Citizen Speech Campaign today. Kicked off with a lawsuit challenging Florida campaign finance laws that restrict ballot issue advocacy, the campaign is a nationwide effort to ensure the promise of the First Amendment’s command that government “shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”




For a humorous look at how politicians learn how to enact campaign finance laws that stifle free speech, watch a three minute video.

Institute Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “Freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege to be conditioned, regulated, and doled out in small portions by government bureaucrats. Yet campaign finance laws across our nation erect needless barriers that punish the most effective speakers.”

For example, in 24 states, citizens who wish to spend money to speak out about ballot issues must register as political committees and navigate a complex maze of regulations. As a result, a group of citizens in Florida who want to pool their funds to speak out against a controversial amendment that would inhibit development in the state must register with the government, appoint a treasurer, open a separate bank account, and track and report every penny that they raise and spend for their efforts.

Paul Sherman, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the Florida plaintiffs challenging the states campaign finance restrictions, pointed out the real-world harm caused by such government-imposed restrictions on free political speech. Sherman said, “The individuals we represent want to air a radio ad listing the top five reasons to vote against Florida’s amendment to hamper development, but because of campaign finance disclaimer requirements, they will only have time to list three reasons in the 30 seconds. The government-mandated disclosure would take up nearly six seconds—one-fifth of the airtime they have to make their point to voters. This is just one small but tangible example of what’s wrong with campaign finance restrictions and why, if we believe in free speech, they must be challenged in court and defeated.”

The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit today, Andrew Nathan Worley, et al. v. Dawn K. Roberts, et al. challenging these regulations on behalf of a the group.

Sherman said, “The First Amendment exists to allow citizens to criticize the government. The most important time to do that is during the last few weeks of an election, yet campaign finance laws make it that much harder and more costly to speak out.”

In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stirring indictment of campaign finance laws that burden and restrict speech. “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits [government] from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The Court struck down a law that banned corporations from spending money on speech. Along with the direct ban went a law that required corporations to establish separate, heavily regulated political committees or “PACs” in order to speak

A short time later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia extended Citizens United to unincorporated groups, ruling in v. FEC that the government cannot impose limits on contributions to unincorporated associations that wish to speak out for and against candidates. As a result of this ruling, SpeechNow Groups are popping up across the nation to speak out in federal elections.

Despite these rulings, in 22 states, citizen groups who wish to spend money on speech supporting or opposing candidates must create heavily-regulated PACs and may not contribute more money to the groups than government-imposed limits allow. For example, in Rhode Island, individuals may contribute no more than $1,000 per year to such groups. The result is that although individuals and even corporations may spend unlimited amounts on ads saying vote for or against a candidate, individuals in Rhode Island who join together in unincorporated groups are limited to $1,000 each.

To catalogue these senseless and unconstitutional restrictions on speech, the Institute for Justice today released a new research report, Keep Out: How State Campaign Finance Laws Erect Barriers to Entry for Political Entrepreneurs. The report, written by University of Missouri economist Jeff Milyo, explains why citizen speakers are important and how state campaign finance laws get in their way.

Along with the report, the Institute is launching a public campaign calling on officials in the 22 states that impose both contribution limits and PAC requirements on groups that wish to speak out about candidates to bring their laws into compliance with the First Amendment. Recently, officials in Kentucky issued advisory opinions holding that the Citizens United and cases prevent them from imposing contribution limits on groups of citizens who simply want to spend their own money on their own speech. And Massachusetts is in the process of issuing regulations that accomplish the same thing. So it is possible for states to at least begin to do the right thing when prodded, but they should go even farther and eliminate burdensome PAC regulations for citizen groups as well.

“Freedom of speech is not only a right, it is a profound value” said IJ Staff Attorney Darpana Sheth. “It is time for campaign finance laws to give political speech the respect it deserves.”

The Institute for Justice is a public interest law firm that brings challenges nationwide in support of fundamental individual liberties, including free speech. IJ has challenged or in the process of challenging restrictions on political speech across the nation, including:

  • v. Federal Election Commission, striking down federal political committee requirements that restrict individuals from donating more than $5,000 to citizen groups that want to independently advocate for or against a candidate. This case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Many Cultures, One Message et al. v Clements, one of the most extensive regulations affecting citizen political participation in the nation, if you spend above an artificially low government-imposed cap to urge your fellow citizens to contact government officials, you are forced to register with the government and report your name, address, business, and occupation, the names and addresses of anyone with whom you are working to spread your message, and the names and addresses of each person who contributes as little as $25 to your effort.
  • Sampson v. Buescher, seeks to vindicate the free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In September 2008, the trial court concluded that Colorado’s campaign finance laws “had the effect of stifling political speech in violation of the First Amendment,” but upheld them nonetheless. IJ appealed that ruling to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, where a decision is still pending.
  • Arizona Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, in which the Supreme Court reinstated the district court’s injunction against Arizona’s unconstitutional “matching funds” law—part of Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections Act.” That law punishes candidates who reject the political welfare of public funding by burying them in red tape, giving extra tax-payer money to their publicly funded opponents, and setting stricter limits on how much they can raise. This case, like, is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Broward Coalition of Condominiums v. Browning, declaring unconstitutional Florida’s electioneering communication law, which required any organization speaking out about public issues to register and report their activities to the government.

For a humorous look at how politicians learn how to enact campaign finance laws that stifle free speech, go to