Federal Trial Court Ignores First Amendment, Upholds Washington Regulation of Citizen-to-Citizen Speech

John Kramer
John Kramer · November 9, 2011

Seattle, Wash.—November 8, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington upheld a Washington law that empowers the state government to monitor, collect and publicly disseminate information about the political activities of private citizens who do nothing more than urge their fellow citizens to take political action.

“The First Amendment does not allow grassroots issue advocacy laws that arbitrarily interfere with the right to engage in political activity—but that’s exactly what this decision permits,” said Jeanette Petersen, an Institute for Justice staff attorney and counsel in Many Cultures, One Message, et al. v. Clements.

The ruling by Magistrate Judge Karen Strombom upholds a law that requires individuals and groups to complete intrusive and burdensome filings with the government simply for speaking out about a political issue. So long as a citizen-activist spends more than the state’s arbitrarily low threshold in advancing a political cause (only $500 in one month or $1,000 in three months), the state may force the activist to register on a government database and disclose detailed information, including the names and addresses of anyone who joins forces in such a cause.

“According to the court, Washingtonians have to personally register with the government and disclose information about their political activities simply for speaking out to other ordinary citizens about political issues,” said IJ Washington Chapter Executive Director Bill Maurer. “Worse yet, the decision says this registration is necessary so that legislators can keep track of who among their constituents are urging others to political action. These kinds of laws and this kind of court ruling have no place in the American constitutional system where citizens are free to speak with each other about politics without government oversight and interference.”

Many Cultures, One Message (MCOM) is a diverse neighborhood group initially formed to fight eminent domain abuse in southeast Seattle. MCOM continues to work to fight back efforts to implement transit-oriented development and other measures that would threaten the character and vibrancy of its neighborhood. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Conservative Enthusiasts (CE) is a self-described “tea party” group that educates, engages, and rallies its members to promote limited government and lower taxes at all levels of our government. “Nationwide, campaign finance regulations threaten to silence ordinary citizens—especially those who challenge the political establishment, like MCOM and CE,” Petersen added. “It is particularly disheartening to see a law like this upheld on Election Day when ordinary citizens turn to the ballot box to have their voices heard.”

In upholding the law, Judge Strombom ruled that the government’s actions must be “measured by a deferential standard” and that the courts “are not to infringe on traditional legislative authority” in making its judgments—even when challenged legislation reflects “unprovable assumptions about what is good for the people.”

IJ President Chip Mellor said, “This ruling shows a complete lack of judicial engagement. Judges should engage the facts of every case, including constitutional cases, and require the government to justify its actions with real reasons backed by real evidence. And when there is no evidence to support a law that limits free speech, judges should not hesitate to strike it down.”

MCOM and Conservative Enthusiasts plan to appeal the ruling.

MCOM founder Pat Murakami said, “A law like this can be devastating to grassroots groups like ours and should be removed from the books.”

Mark Sussman, president of Conservative Enthusiasts, said, “I was disappointed to learn of this latest ruling, but fortunately our American system has opportunity for higher-level hearings and we expect ultimately to see this important constitutional right vindicated.”