First Amendment Setback:

John Kramer
John Kramer · December 2, 2008

Arlington, Va.—A state court of appeals in Denver last week refused to recognize the First Amendment rights of nonprofit policy groups to speak freely about politics and instead upheld Colorado’s campaign finance laws that require such groups to register with the state and comply with burdensome disclosure rules simply for speaking out about ballot issues.  The ruling was issued on Wednesday, November 26.

“Under this ruling, groups that merely want to speak out about ballot issues are forced to guess whether the campaign finance laws apply to them—and if they guess wrong, they can be hauled into court,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney and lead counsel in Independence Institute v. Coffman.  “Unless the Colorado Supreme Court reverses this decision, Colorado’s vague laws will continue to entangle policy groups in red tape and expose them to expensive lawsuits just for exercising their First Amendment rights.”

While courts in other states have struck down similar laws, the ruling by Appellate Court Judge Daniel Taubman 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 nonprofit, 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 and intends to appeal this latest ruling.

“Nationwide, campaign finance regulations threaten to shut up ordinary citizens and especially those who disagree with the political establishment,” Simpson added.  “These laws are naked regulations of political speech that serve only to stifle debate about important issues.”

IJ won an important victory for free speech in late October when a federal court in Florida halted the enforcement of a law that required any group that merely mentioned the name of a candidate or ballot measure to register with the state and file detailed reports of their contributions and expenditures.  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.