(Institute for Justice) —Yesterday was a great day for free speech. Late yesterday afternoon, in two cases brought by the Institute for Justice on behalf of individuals and small groups who speak about politics, federal courts held Mississippi’s and Arizona’s campaign finance schemes unconstitutional. These cases come as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to consider a third, nearly identical case from Florida, which was also brought by the Institute for Justice.
IJ Attorney Paul Avelar, lead counsel in both the Arizona and Mississippi cases said, “These rulings vindicate the fundamental right of ordinary Americans to band together and make their voices heard in the political debate, free from burdensome campaign finance laws. In America, you shouldn’t need lawyers and accountants in order to speak about politics; all you should need is an opinion. It is important that both of these federal courts recognized the laws we challenged don’t benefit the public; they only impose onerous burdens on speech and scare ordinary Americans away from political engagement, resulting in less speech.”
In the Mississippi case, Justice v. Hosemann, Judge Sharion Aycock of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi ruled that Mississippi’s campaign finance scheme was an unconstitutional burden on small groups and individuals. Mississippi’s restrictions applied to any individual or group that spent more than $200 to talk about an initiative to amend Mississippi’s Constitution. The law was challenged by five friends from Oxford, Miss.—Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell—who simply wanted to join together and speak out in favor of then-Initiative 31—an effort that would provide Mississippi citizens with greater protection from eminent domain abuse. But Mississippi’s $200 threshold is so low that it was impossible for them to even run a single quarter-page ad in their local newspaper without having to become a political committee.
Judge Aycock found that Mississippi’s campaign finance requirements were so complicated that “a prudent person might have extraordinary difficulty merely determining what is required” and that “potential speakers might well require legal counsel to determine which regulations even apply, above and beyond how to comport with those requirements.” Balancing the great burdens of Mississippi’s scheme against its low interest in the speech and association it was regulating, Judge Aycock ruled that “the burdens imposed by the State’s regulations are simply too great to be borne by the State’s interest in groups raising or expending as little as $200.”
Mississippi plaintiff Vance Justice said, “We just wanted to inform our neighbors about Initiative 31 and government abuse of eminent domain—an important issue that affects everybody. Instead, we wound up learning a lesson in how campaign finance laws chill free speech—also an important issue that affects everybody. We are all thankful that Judge Aycock looked at the real-world effects of these laws and protected our constitutional rights.”
Mississippi attorney Russ Latino, who teamed with the Institute for Justice in the Justice v. Hosemann case, said, “The citizens of Mississippi deserve clear and consistent campaign finance laws that provide for unfettered political participation instead of laws that create undue bureaucratic hurdles that chill free speech. Today was a strong step in that direction.”
In the Arizona case, Galassini v. Town of Fountain Hills, Judge James A. Teilborg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona struck down Arizona’s similar regulatory scheme. The Arizona laws had been challenged by Dina Galassini, a resident of Fountain Hills, Ariz., who in 2011 sent an email to 23 friends and neighbors, inviting them to join her in a protest against a $44 million road bond by making homemade signs and joining her on a street corner. “Little did she realize,” as Judge Teilborg noted, “that she was about to feel the heavy hand of government regulation in a way she never imagined.”
Almost immediately she received a letter from the town clerk telling her to stop speaking until she had registered with the town as a “political committee” under Arizona’s campaign finance laws. Represented by IJ, Galassini challenged the Arizona law, securing an injunction that allowed her to hold her street-corner protests.
Galassini said, “I was stunned to learn that I needed to register with the government just to talk to people in my community about a political issue. All I could think was, ‘How can this be allowed under the First Amendment?’”
Now Judge Teilborg has granted Galassini a final victory, declaring that Arizona’s definition of “political committee,” under which she was regulated, is vague, overbroad, and unduly burdensome. Describing the law, Judge Teilborg noted that “it is not clear that even a campaign finance attorney would be able to ascertain how to interpret [it]” and that “[s]uch vagueness is not permitted by the Constitution.” He went on to note that the “practical effect of [campaign finance] regulations for small groups makes engaging in protected speech a ‘severely demanding task.’”
The Arizona and Mississippi decisions come as the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to take a virtually identical case, Worley v. Florida Secretary of State, involving a group of friends from Florida who, also represented by the Institute for Justice, challenged that state’s campaign finance laws. If the Supreme Court takes the case, it could set nationwide precedent protecting the rights of ordinary Americans to speak without having to comply with burdensome campaign finance laws.
All three cases are part of the Institute for Justice’s Citizen Speech Campaign, a national effort to restore full protection to political speech.
Paul Sherman, an IJ senior attorney and lead counsel in the Florida case, said, “Yesterday’s rulings in Arizona and Mississippi stand in stark contrast with the large number of courts across the country that are failing in their basic responsibility to defend the free speech rights of ordinary Americans. That must stop, and these two recent decisions are a model of how courts should do their job to protect freedom. Someday soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to make clear that—like these judges recognized—the First Amendment demands judicial engagement, not judicial abdication.”