Election Victory Shows How Campaign Finance Complaint Was Just “Politics by Other Means”

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 8, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Last summer, six residents of Parker North, Colo., were sued for speaking out against the annexation of their neighborhood into the nearby town of Parker. On Tuesday, they received partial vindication when the annexation that they opposed was defeated at the polls in a landslide, 351 to 21.

Parker North is a quiet neighborhood of about 300 homes south of Denver. Last year, two residents petitioned the town of Parker to annex the neighborhood. Most vocal in opposition were Karen Sampson, Norm Feck, Tom Sorg, Louise Schiller, and Wes and Becky Cornwell, who printed up lawn signs and fliers and walked the neighborhood trying to convince other residents to oppose annexation. For exercising their rights to free speech, the group was sued by the chief proponent of annexation. The suit, a complaint under Colorado’s campaign finance laws, claimed that the six were opposing a ballot issue without first registering as an “issue committee” and filing periodic reports of their activities. Facing steep fines, the group opposed the complaint and, with the aid of the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm, filed a constitutional challenge to the campaign finance laws in federal court. That case is ongoing.

“We said from the beginning that the majority of people in this neighborhood opposed annexation,” said Karen Sampson. “We tried to prove that by speaking out. For that we were accused of being undemocratic, we were called criminals, and, ultimately, we were sued. We were lucky to be able to fight back with the help of attorneys, but many people, faced with the same thing, would simply shut their mouths. We are challenging the campaign finance laws so that won’t happen.”

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. What’s worse, anyone in the state can file a lawsuit against their neighbors or anyone else they think violated the laws. This creates the incentive for people to sue their political opponents in an effort to shut them up. As Karen Sampson and her neighbors discovered, that is exactly what can happen.

“Our clients learned the hard way that in America you need more than an opinion to speak out about politics,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney. “Today, you also need a lawyer. If we want political speech to remain free, that has to change.”

“Until we decided to fight back, there was serious concern in the neighborhood that anyone who spoke out would be sued,” said Tom Sorg, one of the six plaintiffs in the federal case. “If we had been silenced, who knows how the election would have turned out.”

Besides allowing neighbors to sue neighbors, the campaign finance laws burden groups who want to speak out about ballot issues with a raft of senseless regulations and reporting obligations.

“We should not have to register with the government and get buried with mountains of regulations just so we can talk to our neighbors about something we feel strongly about,” said Becky Cornwell, another of the neighbors who joined with IJ to file suit. “If people want to know who supports or opposes a neighborhood

issue like this, they can drive around and look at the lawn signs. I can’t believe that anyone else in Colorado cares much about this annexation. Requiring us to register with the government and disclose our identities makes no sense at all.”

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