Setback for Free Speech: Colorado Trial Court Upholds Vague Campaign Finance Law

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 7, 2007

Arlington, Va.—A state trial court in Denver rejected a constitutional challenge to Colorado’s campaign finance laws that require policy groups to register with the state and comply with burdensome disclosure rules simply for speaking out about ballot issues. The ruling was issued on Friday, May 4.

“The First Amendment does not allow campaign finance laws to be political clubs wielded by one side of an issue to punish and silence the opposition—but that’s just what this decision permits,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney and lead counsel in Independence Institute v. Mike Coffman, Secretary of State, State of Colorado. “Unfortunately, Colorado’s vague laws will continue to entangle policy groups in red tape and expose them to expensive lawsuits just for speaking out.”

The ruling by District Court Judge Herbert L. Stern III opens policy groups across the state to expensive, politically-motivated litigation simply for speaking out about a political issue. Because the ruling and Colorado law fail to provide any clear guidelines about whether such groups must first register with the government before speaking out on an issue, they leave such groups guessing about whether they can exercise their First Amendment rights. Moreover, those laws impose high costs and burdens on policy groups just for speaking out.

The Independence Institute, a non-profit, pro-free-market think tank based in Golden, Colo., brought the challenge after finding itself in the cross hairs of a politically-motivated lawsuit for criticizing Referenda C and D in 2005. The lawsuit was brought by a supporter of the referenda. The Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm that defends First Amendment rights, represents the Independence Institute in the case.

“We were one of the few groups in Colorado that criticized Referenda C and D,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute. “For that we were sued and forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending ourselves. We brought this suit to prevent that from happening again, and we will appeal.”

“Nationwide, campaign finance regulations threaten to shut up ordinary citizens and especially those who disagree with the political establishment,” Simpson added. “These laws are nothing but government regulation of political speech and serve only to stifle debate about important issues.”

IJ won an important victory for free speech last month when the Washington Supreme Court refused to allow politically-motivated prosecutors to use campaign finance laws to silence radio talk show hosts. IJ is also defending neighbors in the tiny neighborhood of Parker North, Colo., who banded together to fight annexation to a nearby town—and found themselves sued for putting up yard signs and passing out flyers without first registering with the government.