Freedom of speech and freedom of association are so important that they are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet across the nation, in nearly every state, government regulation stifles the ability of citizens to exercise their rights to speak and to associate with one another to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. The culprit? So-called campaign finance laws.
For example, in 24 states, citizens who wish to spend money to speak out about ballot issues must register as political committees or “PACs” and navigate a complex maze of regulations. As a result, a group of citizens in Florida who want to pool their funds to speak out against a controversial amendment that would inhibit development in the state must register with the government, appoint a treasurer, open a separate bank account, and track and report every penny that they raise and spend for their efforts. In Colorado, a group of citizens was sued under these laws for putting up lawn signs opposing a local initiative and sending post cards to neighbors.
Another 22 states add contribution limits to these regulatory burdens for citizen groups that spend money on speech supporting or opposing candidates. For example, in Rhode Island, individuals may contribute no more than $1000 per year to such groups. The result is that although individuals and even corporations may spend unlimited amounts on ads saying vote for or against a candidate, individuals in Rhode Island who join together in unincorporated groups are limited to $1000 each.
To remedy this, the Institute for Justice launched its Citizen Speech Campaign on September 29, 2010. Kicked off with a lawsuit, Andrew Nathan Worley, et al. v. Dawn K. Roberts, et al., that challenges Florida ballot issue campaign finance laws, the campaign is a nationwide effort to ensure the promise of the First Amendment’s command that government “shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”
To catalogue the various state laws that restrict citizen speech, the Institute today released a new research report, Keep Out: How State Campaign Finance Laws Erect Barriers to Entry for Political Entrepreneurs. The report, written by University of Missouri economist Jeff Milyo, explains why citizen speakers are important and how state campaign finance laws get in their way.
Along with the report, the Institute is launching a public campaign calling on officials in the 22 states that impose both contribution limits and PAC requirements on groups that wish to speak out about candidates to bring their laws into compliance with the First Amendment.
The story concerns the onerous campaign finance laws applicable to me (or rather, the Coalition for Secular Government) because — horror of all horrors — we’re a group receiving and spending more than $200 in opposition to a ballot measure, namely Amendment 62.
The sidebar begins:
Diana Hsieh was a blogger when few people knew what the term meant. A passionate advocate for individual rights, she launched her now-popular blog Noodlefood in 2002 while working as a programmer as a way to get herself to write regularly on political and philosophical issues. Today, Diana presides over a mini-empire of online activism including blogs, discussion groups and even a small nonprofit. A recent Ph.D. in philosophy, Hsieh regularly speaks at philosophy conferences, writes articles and podcasts on various subjects–and still manages to find time to care for a small farm’s worth of dogs, cats and horses at her home in Sedalia, Colorado.
The campaign also released a fun video about “Camp Politics”:
I’ve not yet read the primary report — Keep Out: How State Campaign Finance Laws Erect Barriers to Entry for Political Entrepreneurs — but it looks like more good work from IJ in defense of freedom of speech. If you like what IJ does here, please consider donating for its free speech work. Our very ability to advocate our ideas depends on our freedom of speech — and IJ is acting in defense of everyone willing to speak his mind.