The Price of Political Speech


A fair political practice is a highly regulated political practice, at least in the practice of California's Fair Political Practices Commission. (See "Disclosure Flaw," March 1996.)

In its zeal to ensure that political speech can't be conducted without timely and thorough paperwork filings with the state, the FPPC recently fined two Port Hueneme women $2,250 for trying to make sure their small Ventura County town could still afford its own police department.

Valorie Morrison, a hamburger fryer, and Jillynn Taylor, a housewife, formed an organization called Save Our Port Hueneme Police Department in support of a June 1994 ballot measure to impose a new tax to raise money for the police department. (The measure failed.) Morrison and Taylor's group raised a little over $30,000 and spent over $15,000 on the usual paraphernalia of small-town politics–bumper stickers, T-shirts, direct mailings, newspaper ads, yard signs. (They passed on the remainder of their booty to a successor organization.) Citizen volunteers gathering to let their voices be heard–ain't that America? But they didn't reckon on the wrath of the "good government" bureaucrats at California's FPPC.

The political consulting firm that advised Morrison and Taylor neglected to tell them about FPPC filing requirements, as did a Port Hueneme city clerk. They didn't get around to filing legally required statements of organization, pre-election campaign statements, and semiannual campaign finance statements until after the campaign was over and they finally learned about the FPPC's legal demands. "As soon as we found out, we got all the papers and filed," Morrison says.

They were initially facing $10,000 in fines, but the FPPC, in recognition of their good faith, cut their five violations down to two and even lowered the possible $4,000 fine for those charges to $2,250. Of course, the erstwhile activists also had to pay for lawyers and trips to Sacramento to plead their case. Dealing with the FPPC gave Taylor "a real sick feeling. No one governs these people." Because of the FPPC's power over everyone involved in elections in California, Morrison found that pleas to their elected representatives for help fell on deaf ears. "Everyone is afraid of them," she says. "Our own state representatives wouldn't even talk to us."

Campaign finance laws are supposedly meant to curb the influence of big money on politics. In reality, they create sometimes insurmountable problems for grassroots activists. (See "Gagging on Political Reform," October 1996.) Jillynn Taylor–a housewife, no political sharpie–is clear about what she's learned from her encounter with the good government forces of campaign finance law: "This volunteer will not be involved in politics anymore."