“In Today’s America, Consult Your Attorney Before Speaking Freely”

Daniel Shuchman wrote an excellent article in Forbes, “In Today’s America, Consult Your Attorney Before Speaking Freely,” pointing out the absurdity of political advocacy laws:

In modern America, however, it appears the man in Rockwell’s painting might be advised to be very careful what he says, how he says it, and to whom he says it at the town hall. A few wrong moves and one of the townspeople wearing ties might report him to the local election commission. He might be required to register as a Political Action Committee and make filings with the state. He could face significant administrative expenses, and need to hire a financial staff. Indeed, it would probably be best if he brought an attorney with him to the meeting, lest he run afoul of the rules regarding political speech and advocacy.

While this may sound hyperbolic if not downright absurd in America, it is the inescapable conclusion one reaches in reading the petition papers filed recently with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Edmund Corsi & Geauga Constitutional Council v. Ohio Elections Commission.

According to lower court rulings in Ohio and the findings of the Ohio Elections Commission, it seems that Mr. Corsi, a resident of Geauga County near Cleveland, believes “that most elected officials ignore the constitution and, as a result, he is concerned that he will lose his freedoms in this country.” Mr. Corsi wrote and distributed pamphlets and formed a website under the name of the Geauga Constitutional Council (GCC) to express his views. He never formally incorporated the GCC, and it seems to have largely acted as a pseudonym. He paid $40 a month to maintain his website and held informational events at which he provided food and for which he sometimes charged a small entrance fee. Mr. Corsi estimated that he spent a “couple hundred dollars” publishing his pamphlets.

The article continues:

Mr. Corsi got in trouble when he hosted, under the name of the GCC, a booth at the Geauga County Fair, where he handed out brochures. He was ratted out by a member of the local board of elections who was also in attendance at the fair. This commissar (who is also a local Republican party official and had been the object of critical blog postings by Mr. Corsi) discovered that the brochures did not contain the disclaimers required of political action committees under Ohio election law. He later found a further threat to public safety: the GCC had not designated a treasurer and had made no filings with the county board of elections.

Although one would think that the First Amendment is extraordinarily clear about the government’s role in regulating political speech, the fact of the matter is that Americans really do need to retain a lawyer before engaging in what should be their constitutionally protected right.  Allowing politicians to dictate political speech rules concerning who, where, when, and after what forms have been submitted to the government, runs entirely counter to the principles this nation claims to embrace, and often ensnares smaller groups and individuals, who just want to speak about political issues, into potentially devastating legal action.

As the Corsi case demonstrates, the rules are ripe for abuse.  Although the rules are justified as corruption-preventing measures, political speech laws are often wielded as weapons by politicians looking to silence individuals and small groups.  Mr. Shuchman writes:

No inquiry was made by the Ohio courts to determine the scope of the GCC’s political activities or “express advocacy” as required by the state’s definition of a PAC. Indeed, it is hard to see how making such a determination is even a logical possibility, given that the GCC’s existence appears to have been largely an abstract creation of Mr. Corsi’s imagination; Where do the GCC’s activities begin and those of Mr. Corsi himself end? If he and a friend distribute ten “GCC” pamphlets on a street corner, are they instantly classified as a PAC? These are the kinds of Alice in Wonderland questions that modern campaign finance law imposes on citizens and courts.

CCP petitioned for a writ of certiori in Corsi v. OEC in early June.  We sincerely hope that the Supreme Court takes the case and uses it to set precedent in favor of speech rights.

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  1. […] coincidentally, the GOP official in question had been the subject of criticism from Corsi. Until his own ox was gored, the official apparently was not moved to apply the PAC law to a […]