Sued for Free Speech

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 15, 2008

Arlington, Va.—When six neighbors in the tiny subdivision of Parker North, Colo., decided to plant yard signs, talk to neighbors and write letters opposing the annexation of their neighborhood, they thought they were simply speaking out about an important local political issue, a right protected by the First Amendment.

They never imagined they would be sued for their speech—by the very people backing annexation.

But in Colorado and other states, campaign finance laws drown even simple grassroots advocacy in red tape and invite lawsuits aimed at shutting up political opponents.

Today, the neighbors of Parker North are fighting back and taking Colorado’s laws to federal court. The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado will hear oral arguments in a First Amendment challenge designed to free political advocacy from burdensome regulation and threats of litigation.

“In America today, in order to speak out about politics, you need more than an opinion—you also need a lawyer,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney who represents the neighbors in Parker North and will argue their case. “But the First Amendment is supposed to protect free speech and political activity—not mire it down in bureaucratic red tape.”

In Colorado, any time two or more people join together to speak out about an issue on the ballot and spend more than $200 they must register with the state as an “issue committee.” They then must file reports that rival IRS forms in complexity listing all contributions and spending, even on things like yard signs and fliers.

Karen Sampson and her neighbors had never even heard of the term “issue committee” until annexation proponents sued them. They simply wanted to speak out. Instead, they got a lawsuit, burdensome red tape, and the threat of legal penalties for their speech.

“No one should be afraid to speak about issues or politics for fear of being sued, and no one should have to hire a lawyer to plant yard signs,” said Sampson. “We’re fighting this law because we want to make sure free speech is protected and that no one else has to go through what we did.”

Indeed, a recent study by campaign finance expert Dr. Jeffrey Milyo found that most citizens, 93 percent, are similarly unaware that speech about an issue on the ballot requires them to register with the government. And when Dr. Milyo asked 255 people to fill out the required registration and reporting forms, not one participant managed to do so correctly. Each person would have been subject to fines and penalties in real life. Like those in Parker North, participants found the red tape “Worse than the IRS!”

“The First Amendment was designed to protect and encourage political speech and participation, but that’s exactly what laws like Colorado’s are suppressing,” concluded Simpson.

Sampson v. Coffman will be heard by the Honorable Richard P. Matsch at 2:30 p.m. today. Read more information on the case. Download Milyo’s study, “Campaign Finance Red Tape.”