Federal Court Refuses to Protect Citizen Speech
Arlington, Va.— Grassroots political groups in Florida suffered a setback last Friday when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to Florida laws that require small groups to comply with a host of burdensome regulations simply to speak to the public about ballot issues. The lawsuit, Worley v. Florida Secretary of State, involved a challenge to “political committee” requirements, regulations that the U.S. Supreme Court has held are unconstitutionally burdensome even for corporations and unions.
Friday’s ruling upheld applying these laws to plaintiffs Nathan Worley, Pat Wayman and John Scolaro, a group of friends from Sarasota, Fla., who in 2010 wanted to spend $600 on radio ads urging the defeat of a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution. Because Florida’s political committee requirements apply to groups that spend as little as $500 on speech, the three were unable to run their ads. The ruling also upheld a requirement that political committees include a lengthy disclaimer in their political advertisements.
Paul Sherman, Institute for Justice attorney and lead counsel in the case said, “The 11th Circuit’s ruling means that speech by grassroots groups in Florida remains subject to greater regulation than speech by ExxonMobil or the AFL-CIO. This is yet another example of how complicated, unnecessary and unconstitutional campaign-finance laws are pushing ordinary people out of the political debate.”
Key to the 11th Circuit’s decision was its rejection of the plaintiffs’ argument that Florida’s campaign-finance laws cannot constitutionally be applied to small groups like Nathan, Pat and John. The court refused to rule on that claim, citing the hypothetical possibility that the group of three friends might receive million-dollar contributions in a future election.
IJ client Nathan Worley said, “The idea that we could have raised $1 million is just crazy. We didn’t have the time or the ability to figure out Florida’s campaign-finance laws, let alone raise that kind of money. We’re just ordinary people who wanted to pool a small amount to get our message out there.”
Friday’s ruling does not discuss evidence—including statements by the government’s own expert—showing that Florida’s laws produce few, if any, benefits for the public. The ruling also made no mention of evidence that Florida’s campaign-finance laws are subject to abuse. The Florida Elections Commission testified during the case that 98 percent of the complaints they receive are “politically motivated,” and are often filed by people seeking “to punish their political opponent.”
“The 11th Circuit simply ignored the overwhelming evidence that Florida’s political committee laws produce no public benefits and serve mainly as weapons to be used against political opponents,” said Sherman. “The cost of this judicial abdication is that ordinary Floridians are far less likely to get involved in the important issues of the day.”
IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “This ruling shows the critical need for judicial engagement, a willingness on the part of the judiciary to look at the facts and see how these laws silence grassroots speech by ordinary people. It’s appalling that the court would ignore those facts and uphold laws that threaten citizens with civil and criminal penalties simply for speaking out.”
The plaintiffs have until July 5to seek rehearing by the full 11th Circuit, or until September 12to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.