Federal Court Rules Parker North, Colo., Neighbors  Should Not Have Been Sued for Speech, But Fails to Stop Future Abuse

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 18, 2008

Arlington, Va.—A federal judge today held that six neighbors in the tiny subdivision of Parker North, Colo., should not have been sued for their speech opposing the annexation of their neighborhood, but the ruling does nothing to stop future abuses of campaign finance laws in Colorado or elsewhere. The decision also lets stand the burdensome red tape required under Colorado law for grassroots groups that simply want to speak out about issues on the ballot.

In Sampson v. Coffman, Judge Richard P. Matsch of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, recognized that the very people backing annexation, Patsy Putnam and David Hopkins, used Colorado’s campaign finance laws to intimidate and silence their political opponents: “There can be no doubt that Putnam and Hopkins used the private enforcement provisions to attempt to silence the plaintiffs by the filing of the complaint.”

Those “private enforcement provisions” turn campaign finance laws into a club that political operatives can wield against their opponents by suing them into silence. Judge Matsch made clear that Putnam and Hopkins’ complaint violated the First Amendment rights of the Parker North neighbors, but he failed to strike down the private enforcement provisions. That leaves any citizen group that bands together to speak about an issue on the ballot vulnerable to being sued for their speech by political opponents.

“Under the First Amendment, no one should be afraid to speak out about politics for fear of being sued,” said Steve Simpson, an Institute for Justice senior attorney who represents the neighbors in Parker North. “Colorado’s campaign finance laws invite political operatives to abuse the system to silence opponents, and today’s ruling does nothing to stop it.”

Karen Sampson and her neighbors were sued simply for planting yard signs, talking to neighbors and sending post cards without registering as an “issue committee.”

In Colorado and other states, 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.

Judge Matsch ruled that these limits cannot kick in for annexation elections until the issue is put on the ballot. The Parker North neighbors had been sued and, under state law, forced to become an “issue committee” long before that. The judge held that to turn groups of citizens into “issue committees” before the ballot is set would violate their First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

Unfortunately, the ruling—with no legal analysis and ignoring evidence in the case—let these same regulations stand once an issue is on the ballot. These rules drown even simple grassroots advocacy in red tape with threats of fines and legal penalties for mistakes.

“Today in America, to speak about politics you need more than an opinion—you need a lawyer and an accountant,” said Simpson. “This endless red tape discourages political participation by making it harder than ever to make your voice heard.”

Indeed, a recent study by campaign finance expert Dr. Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Kansas School of Business asked 255 people to fill out the required registration and reporting forms, and 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!” and said it would make them less likely to get involved in politics.

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