Free Speech Victory 

John Kramer
John Kramer · July 15, 2011

Arlington, Va.—Today, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington halted efforts by the state of Washington to restrict how much money people may give to campaigns to recall elected officials. In a decision with major implications for both the First Amendment and the right of recall guaranteed by the Washington Constitution, Judge Robert Bryan enjoined the Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) from enforcing an $800 cap on the amount one may contribute to the Recall Dale Washam campaign until the court can make a full decision on the merits.

The case, which was filed on June 7, involves retired naval officer Robin Farris, who recently launched a recall campaign against controversial Pierce County, Washington, Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. But Farris ran headlong into the complexities and red tape of Washington’s campaign finance laws. Among those laws was Washington’s $800 limit on contributions to recall campaigns. This limit even extended to in-kind donations of legal services. Thus, even though attorneys Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon of the firm Oldfield & Helsdon PLLChappily donated free legal assistance to Farris to help her navigate the complex law surrounding recall campaigns, Washington called their volunteer service a contribution and could have fined Robin for accepting too much of their help.

For Farris, these limits could have spelled doom for her committee. Washington law actually requires all recall campaigns to first go to court—a process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars—before they may proceed. As a political novice with no established base of financial support, there was no way she could afford the cost of legal services orthe cost of hiringsignature gatherersto get her recall petition on the ballot. That is why she joined with the Institute for Justice to fight these limits on grassroots political advocacy.

Now she’s one step closer to winning that fight.

Today’s decision halts the PDC’s ability to enforce that restriction against the campaign until the court can fully consider the case on the merits. In his ruling today, Judge Bryan held that the PDC, at this stage, “has not shown that it has an important state interest which would justify limiting Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights . . . .” The court also said that “the public interest in upholding free speech and association rights outweighs the interest in the continued enforcement of these campaign finance provisions.”

Bill Maurer, the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which argued for the injunction, said, “Today’s decision correctly recognizes that this law improperly interferes with free speech about one of the most critical decisions facing the people of Pierce County—who will represent them in office. We look forward to taking the next step in the case and asking the court to permanently enjoin this law not only for Robin Farris, the Recall Dale Washam Committee and Oldfield & Helsdon, but for all Washingtonians wishing to exercise their right of recall guaranteed by the Washington Constitution.”

The ruling isnotable for its extensive reliance on the Institute for Justice’s recent victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, which Judge Bryan cited no less than five times.

Said IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor, “This is another example of how IJ’s strategic approach to litigation pays dividends in future cases, leading to big gains for individual rights.”