Colorado Residents File Federal Lawsuit Challenging Laws That Silence Their Political Speech

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 19, 2006

Arlington, Va.—All that the neighbors of the quiet neighborhood of Parker North, Colo., wanted was to explain why they opposed being annexed into the Town of Parker, located southeast of Denver, and encourage others to join with them. What they got for exercising their right to free speech was a lawsuit filed under the State’s campaign finance laws by their political opponents—a lawsuit that threatened to silence anyone who opposed annexation.

But today, the Parker North neighbors are fighting back with a lawsuit of their own.

On September 19, 2006, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that litigates nationwide in defense of free speech and other constitutionally enshrined rights, filed suit in federal court on behalf of the Parker North neighbors against the Colorado Secretary of State, who is responsible for enforcing Colorado’s campaign finance laws. The case seeks to vindicate the free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“In America, the only thing you should need in order to speak out about politics is an opinion,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “Political speech and participation is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect and that is exactly what Colorado’s law is suppressing.”

In Colorado, any two or more people who join together to speak out about a political issue and spend more than $200 doing so, must register with the State, track and report all of their “contributions” and “expenditures” and disclose the identities of anyone who contributed money.

Simpson said, “If you and a neighbor spend more than $200 to distribute fliers or put up yard signs or other such activities that support or oppose a ballot issue, Colorado considers you an ‘issue committee’ and redefines your speech as campaign ‘finance’ activities. If you do not register and comply with burdensome reporting requirements, anyone with a political ax to grind can sue you for violations of the campaign finance laws.”

The residents of Parker North discovered this the hard way. In the midst of a debate about whether their tiny subdivision of about 300 homes should be annexed into the neighboring town of Parker, the supporters of annexation filed a campaign finance complaint against the six most vocal opponents, and threatened to go after anyone else with a yard sign opposing the annexation.

“We should not have to register with the government and get buried with mountains of regulations just so we can talk about politics,” said Becky Corwell, one of the neighbors who joined with IJ to file suit. “When I first learned about the lawsuit against me, I was scared and angry. And the more I got dragged into this, the more frustrated I became. I was being forced to study and comply with incredibly complicated laws even a lawyer would have a hard time understanding. It was a ridiculous waste of time and energy and that really was the point; that’s the price the people fighting against my right to speak wanted to impose on me. Colorado’s law should not allow them to do that ever again to me or anyone else. We should be allowed to speak truthfully and freely without facing this kind of harassment.”

Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, warned, “Left unchecked, the day is coming when Americans will view the prospect of participating in the political process the same way they view filing their income tax returns—too much time, too much red tape, too much anxiety. In short, the more costly and difficult we make political speech, the less of it we will get. That is a tragedy in a nation whose people consider political speech and participation a birthright.”

On Wednesday, September 20, 2006, the Institute for Justice will appear before an administrative judge in Denver to defend the Parker North residents from the campaign finance lawsuit brought against them.

Although most people think campaign finance laws affect only politicians and simply require them to disclose contributions to their campaigns, time and again these laws are being used to silence the voices of political opponents, imposing burdensome reporting requirements, opportunity costs and other distractions all designed to gain a victory at any cost.

  • In Colorado, the State’s vague campaign finance laws were used to go after the Independence Institute, a non-profit think tank that opposed two referenda that would raise taxes and increase government spending. In a complaint filed with the Colorado Secretary of State, an advocate for the tax increase claimed the Independence Institute was an “issue committee” that was “campaigning” against the referenda and had violated campaign finance laws by failing to register with the State, report all expenditures and contributions, and disclose the identities of its supporters. Although the complaint was ultimately thrown out as unwarranted, after experiencing firsthand how these laws can be used as a political weapon to stifle free speech and impose steep financial and opportunity costs on dissenters, the Independence Institute, represented by the Institute for Justice, filed suit challenging the vague language of Colorado’s campaign finance laws as well as their disclosure and reporting requirements that chill political speech and association.
  • In the State of Washington, San Juan County and the cities of Kent, Auburn and Seattle sued opponents of a steep gas tax increase under the State’s campaign finance laws, alleging that the No New Gas Tax campaign had failed to report “in-kind contributions” it supposedly received from talk radio hosts. The supposed “in-kind contributions” were the on-air discussions of I-912, which would have rolled back a massive gasoline tax increase of 9.5 cents per gallon over four years. What the radio talk show hosts engaged in was pure political speech on an issue of importance to all Washingtonians. According to the municipalities, such discussions were not free speech but rather were financial contributions to the campaign. This case was argued this past June before the Washington Supreme Court; a decision is expected soon.

Read IJ’s backgrounder on this case: Silencing Political Speech: Colorado’s Campaign Finance Laws Stifle Political Debate