Mississippi Citizens Join Together, File First Amendment Lawsuit Challenging Statewide Speech Regulations

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 20, 2011

Arlington, Va.— Should Mississippi citizens need to get the government’s permission before speaking about political issues with their neighbors and friends?

That is the question to be answered by a First Amendment lawsuit filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi by five Mississippi citizens and the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm. Attorneys and clients involved in the case are available for interviews by phone and email.

Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell are Mississippi citizens who simply want to join together and speak out in favor of Initiative 31—an effort that would provide Mississippi citizens with greater protection from eminent domain abuse. But if they spend just $200 on signs, buttons and flyers without first registering with the government and navigating a complex web of regulations, they would be subject to fines and possible criminal penalties.

“In America, the only thing you should need to speak about politics is an opinion,” said IJ Staff Attorney Paul Avelar, lead counsel in today’s lawsuit. “But thanks to Mississippi’s burdensome campaign finance laws, groups of concerned citizens need more than just their opinions, they also need a lawyer.”

Under Mississippi law, anytime two or more people join together to spend more than $200 to support or oppose a ballot issue, they become a fully regulated political committee. This means they must register with the state, appoint a director and treasurer, file monthly, annual and other periodic reports of their activities and keep track of every dollar that is spent or contributed—including the gas used to drive to a copy shop to pick up flyers. Further, personal information about everyone involved, including their address and the name of their employer, is made public on the Internet for the world to see.

In conjunction with the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice today released a national report, Full Disclosure: How Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws Fail to Inform Voters and Stifle Public Debate. The report shows that disclosure laws do little to help voters while imposing substantial costs on those wishing to participate in the political process. The author, David M. Primo, Ph.D., is a recognized expert in American politics, campaign finance regulation and fiscal policy. His research has appeared in news outlets nationwide and was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court this past term.

This case is the most recent effort in the Institute for Justice’s Citizen Speech Campaign, a national effort to restore full protection to political speech. For more on today’s lawsuit and report, visit www.ij.org/MSCitizenSpeech.