Federal Court Refuses to Protect Citizens’ Political Speech

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 14, 2014

NEW ORLEANS— Grassroots political groups in Mississippi suffered a setback today when a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to Mississippi laws that require small groups to comply with a host of burdensome campaign finance regulations simply to speak to the public about ballot issues. The lawsuit, Justice v. Hosemann, was brought by five friends and neighbors from Oxford, Miss. and the Institute for Justice, challenging Mississippi’s “political committee” requirements—regulations that the U.S. Supreme Court has held are unconstitutionally burdensome even for large corporations and unions.

The ruling upheld applying these laws to the plaintiffs, who get together to discuss political issues of the day and sometimes get involved in political activism. They fund their activities by literally “passing the hat” at their meetings. In 2011, they wanted to pass the hat to buy some posters, flyers and a newspaper ad in their local paper to support a ballot measure to reign in eminent domain abuse. But because Mississippi’s political committee requirements apply to groups and individuals that spend as little as $200 of their own money on speech, they self-censored and did not do all of their desired activities. It was impossible for them to run even a single, quarter-page ad in their local paper without running afoul of the laws.

To make matters worse, evidence showing that Mississippi’s laws are confusing, burdensome and produce few, if any, benefits for the public was not considered in the decision. The laws Mississippi speakers must comply with are so confusing that not even the State understands them all. Yet failure to comply with the letter of the law can result in $1,000 fines or even a year in jail. Moreover, the court completely ignored published social science studies demonstrating the heavy burdens and lack of benefits of these laws. Given these facts, it is no wonder that federal courts across the county—including the federal district court in this case—have ruled that laws like Mississippi’s are unconstitutional when applied to small groups like the plaintiffs here.

“In America, you shouldn’t need lawyers and accountants in order to speak about politics, all you should need is an opinion,” said IJ Attorney Paul Avelar. “But Mississippi insists on keeping laws on the books that don’t benefit the public—they only impose onerous burdens on speech and scare ordinary Americans away from political engagement, resulting in less speech.”

The plaintiffs have until November 28 to seek rehearing by the full 5th Circuit, or until February 12 to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more on the lawsuit, visit www.ij.org/mississippi-citizen-speech. Founded in 1991, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty.