Campaigns/Elections

Federal Judge Removes Florida's Gag on Political Speech

|

Yesterday a federal judge suspended enforcement of a Florida law that the Institute for Justice calls "the broadest regulation of political speech in the nation." Under the law, any group that so much as mentions a candidate or ballot measure in a newsletter or online has to register with the state as an "electioneering communications organization," file regular spending reports, and disclose its donors. According to I.J., "There are almost 100 possible violations of the law, and failure to comply could lead to fines and jail time. The time and money required to navigate this bureaucratic red tape is too much for many citizen groups and non-profits, leaving them no choice but to stay silent." On its face, the law exposes national organizations with websites that discuss Florida issues to legal liability. It also applies to individuals who spend $100 or more to communicate their political views.

"No court has ever upheld such a sweeping regulation of political speech," U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle noted in issuing the preliminary injunction that I.J. sought on behalf of the National Taxpayers Union, the University of Florida College Libertarians, and the the Broward Coalition of Condominiums, Homeowners Associations, and Community Organizations. These groups now will be able to discuss election-related issues without fear of getting into legal trouble.

In concluding that I.J.'s First Amendment challenge to the law was likely to prevail, Mickle rejected the idea that calling speech restrictions "campaign finance reform" makes them less suspect:

The rights to speak and associate freely regarding issues of public concern are zealously guarded by the First Amendment. Unfettered and unregulated speech is the rule, not the exception. Just because a restriction is labeled as a restriction on campaign finance does not mean that it faces an easier path to constitutionality than a restriction outside that context.

Addendum: A PDF of Mickle's decision is available here.