Federal Court Refuses to Protect Citizen Speech

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 6, 2012

Arlington, Va.—Late Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida rejected a challenge to Florida campaign-finance laws that require grassroots groups to comply with a host of burdensome regulations simply to speak to the public about ballot issues. The Institute for Justice, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, Worley v. Detzner, plans to appeal the ruling.

Under Florida law, whenever two or more people get together and spend as little as $500 to support or oppose a ballot issue, they are required to register with the state as a “political committee” and comply with numerous burdensome regulations. In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court held that these kinds of “political committee” requirements could not constitutionally be applied to corporations and unions.

Tuesday’s ruling upheld applying these laws to plaintiffs Nathan Worley, Pat Wayman and John Scolaro, a group of friends from Sarasota, Fla., who joined together in 2010 to run radio ads urging the defeat of proposed Amendment 4 to the Florida Constitution. The ruling also upheld a requirement that political committees include a lengthy disclaimer in their political advertisements. For the plaintiffs, this meant that they would have to devote at least 20 percent of their advertising time to the state-mandated disclaimer.

Paul Sherman, IJ attorney and lead counsel in the case said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has said that laws like Florida’s are unconstitutionally burdensome even for wealthy corporations and unions. If these laws are too burdensome for Exxon Mobil and the AFL-CIO, imagine how burdensome they are for ordinary people who can’t afford to hire professional campaign managers.”

IJ client Nathan Worley said, “These laws keep ordinary people from speaking out about politics. If you want to speak out on a controversial issue, and you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re asking for trouble.”

Worley’s concerns are borne out by the evidence. David Flagg, the investigations manager for the Florida Elections Commission, which enforces the state’s campaign-finance laws, testified that 98% of the complaints the Commission receives are “politically motivated,” and that complaints are often filed by individuals seeking “to punish their political opponent.”

The trial court’s ruling did strike down one portion of Florida’s law: a provision that prohibited groups from spending any money raised in the last five days before an election until after the election had passed. The court held that provision violated the First Amendment.

Institute for Justice 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.”

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