Supreme Court May Consider Protecting Free Campaign Speech for the "Little Guy"

Paul Sherman of the Institute for Justice with exciting potential news for free political speech, writing at Forbes.

this Friday, November 1, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet in private conference to decide whether to grant review in a case that...demonstrates the severe burden that campaign-finance laws impose on ordinary, grassroots groups of Americans.

The case, Worley v. Florida Secretary of State, involves three Florida residents, Nathan Worley, John Scolaro, and Pat Wayman, who in 2010 wanted to pool $600 to spend on radio ads opposing a controversial amendment to the Florida constitution regarding land-use regulations....

Under Florida law, anytime two or more people spend as little as $500 to support or oppose a candidate or ballot issue, they are considered a “political committee.”  That means they have to register with the state, open a separate bank account, pay for all expenses with checks drawn from that account and keep meticulous financial records, all of which are disclosed on the Internet.  In other words, they have to comply with all of the requirements that political candidates hire lawyers and accountants to deal with.

As a practical matter, these regulations make spontaneous political speech effectively impossible for ad hoc, grassroots groups....

For those groups that do choose to speak out, Florida’s campaign-finance laws present a regulatory minefield filled with scores of potential violations.  The state recommends that those wishing to comply with the law familiarize themselves with more than a thousand pages of constitutional provisions, laws, regulations, and advisory opinions....

Faced with these burdens, Nathan, John and Pat—represented by the Institute for Justice—turned to the federal courts to vindicate their First Amendment rights.

They had good reason to be hopeful.  The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that political committee requirements like Florida’s impose severe burdens on political speech that merit the highest level of judicial scrutiny.  Indeed, in Citizens United, the Court held that forcing corporations and unions to speak through a political committee was so burdensome it amounted to an unconstitutional “ban on speech.”  Nevertheless, a federal court in Florida and, later, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both upheld Florida’s political committee law....

That result cannot be squared with the First Amendment, which is why the Supreme Court should grant review in Nathan, John, and Pat’s case and reverse the decision of the 11th Circuit.  Doing so wouldn’t just vindicate the plaintiffs’ rights, it would demonstrate the Court’s commitment to the principle that political participation is not a game reserved for the wealthy—it is the right of every American and every group of Americans, no matter how modest their resources or political goals.

I wrote for Reason back in 2001 on how campaign finance law can be used to destroy the lives of grassroots political activists for no legitimate public policy reason.

Reason on Citizens United.

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  • Jordan||

    The case, Worley v. Florida Secretary of State, involves three Florida residents, Nathan Worley, John Scolaro, and Pat Wayman, who in 2010 wanted to pool $600 to spend on radio ads opposing a controversial amendment to the Florida constitution regarding land-use regulations....

    Look at those fatcats trying to corrupt the democratic process!

    /derpgressive

  • creech||

    Law is nonsense, of course, but I'm surprised there isn't a host of committees being formed to spend $499.99 each to co-sponsor ads.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    But understanding how to structure that kind of scheme would take some decent legal advice. Which, chances are, tiny advocacy groups couldn't afford.

  • Nazdrakke||

    Which is the point.

  • Fluffy||

    The standard should be very straightforward:

    You should be able to wake up in the morning and with absolutely no forethought or preparation walk down to your local newspaper and buy a print ad or walk down to your local radio station and buy some air time using the cash in your pocket. You should not have to concern yourself with the ordering process, or with keeping a receipt, unless you're one of those anal type people who's obsessed with receipts.

    Any state of affairs other than that described above is an unconstitutional limitation on speech.

  • Paul Sherman||

    As the author of this op-ed and the lawyer for these speakers, I hereby nominate Fluffy for a federal judgeship.

  • Nazdrakke||

    We could always hope, hey?

  • Brett L||

    I'm not sure Fluffy is capable of toadyinig to the State the way Federal judges do.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Well, Godspeed - let's hope you end up doing a bang-up job of Supreme Court advocacy

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Listen, these rules are in place to make sure the little guys don't get drowned out by the rich fat cats. You don't want rich dudes controlling the political process, do you? That's why we need to make sure people can't combine to spend $501 dollars together. Next you'll tell me they should be able to put up alt-text without going through the appropriate paperwork.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Say it with me now, Because Fuck You, that's why.

  • Cyto||

    Let's see:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Nope, no ambiguity there. No law. Not "no law except..." Not mostly no law. Just a plain, simple blanket prohibition. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.

    Why do these dingle-berries have such a hard time with such a simple and straightforward constitutional restriction? There are exactly zero officials in the federal government who get this. Not in the judiciary. Not in the executive. Not in congress.

    I feel like we need that "this is your brain on drugs" guy to go explain what "no law" means.... with his frying pan. "No law" means you can't tax it, you can't regulate it, you can't require certain magic words like: "I'm Joe Blow, and I approved this message". None of it. Not for political speech of any kind. Not for any other kind of speech either, no matter how obscene.

    If you can't grok that simple principle, you have no business holding a position in any of the 3 branches of our government.

  • thorax232||

    Free speech is universal and unjusticiable...

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