Free Speech Group Has Its Day in Federal Court

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 5, 2013

Arlington, Va.Should Mississippi citizens need to get the government’s permission before speaking about political issues with their friends and neighbors? That is the question to be answered by a First Amendment lawsuit to be argued this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. The lawsuit was filed by five Mississippi citizens represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm.

Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell are Mississippi citizens who simply wanted to join together in 2011 to speak out in favor of Initiative 31—an effort to provide Mississippi citizens with greater protection from eminent domain abuse. Their efforts were stymied by Mississippi law, which requires groups that want to spend as little as $200 on political speech to first register with the government and navigate a complex web of regulations. Failure to comply with the law can subject a group to fines and possible criminal penalties.

“In America, the only thing you should need to speak about politics is an opinion,” said IJ Attorney Paul Avelar, lead counsel in the 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.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already held that laws like Mississippi’s are unconstitutionally burdensome even for corporations and unions,” said IJ Attorney Paul Sherman, who represents clients in a similar challenge to laws in Florida. “Laws that are too burdensome for General Motors and the AFL-CIO are too burdensome for ordinary Americans like our clients.”

In conjunction with the filing of this lawsuit in 2011, the Institute for Justice 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 like Mississippi’s do little to help voters while imposing substantial costs on those looking 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 recently cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Mandatory disclosure laws burden speech and scare people away from getting involved in their communities politically,” said Avelar. “Campaign finance laws end up favoring the wealthy and political insiders while inhibiting the ability of ordinary Americans to speak and participate in the political process. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s the duty of the federal courts to put a stop to it.”