Alexandria, VA – A federal judge late yesterday ruled that Colorado’s campaign disclosure laws violate the First Amendment when applied to small organizations, writing that “any ‘informational interest’ the government has in mandating contribution and expenditure disclosures [is] so minimal as to be nonexistent, and certainly insufficient to justify the burdens compliance imposes on members’ constitutional free speech and association rights.”
Under the ruling, the Coalition for Secular Government (CSG), which advocates for the separation of church and state, is exempt from having to register and report to Colorado as a ballot issue committee because it plans to spend less than $3500 on its efforts. The state would have required CSG to register because one of its major projects, a 30,000 word policy paper on the history and philosophical implications of the nationwide personhood movement, ended with a single sentence suggesting that the reader vote against a Colorado ballot measure.
Senior District Court Judge John Kane wrote, describing that paper: “the Internet is the new soapbox; it is the new town square. CSG’s ‘personhood’ paper is Tom Paine’s pamphlet. It is the quintessence of political speech.”
Judge Kane had previously asked the Colorado Supreme Court to answer certified question concerning the meaning of vague constitutional provisions and the effect of a 2010 federal appellate decision. Judge Kane characterized the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision that all small groups would have to seek case-by-case relief in court as “itself offend[ing] the First Amendment. By setting in stone the uncertainty that precipitated this litigation in the first place, the [Supreme] Court’s interpretation chills robust discussion at the very core of our electoral process.”
Judge Kane also castigated state lawmakers for failing to bring Colorado’s laws into conformance with the First Amendment. He awarded legal fees to the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), which represented CSG, and warned “state lawmakers that the Secretary [of State] will be on the hook for fees every time a group, like CSG, falls under the $200 trigger for issue committee status and has to sue to vindicate its First Amendment rights.”
“We are pleased by this timely decision allowing our client to speak freely as provided by the First Amendment,” said CCP Legal Director Allen Dickerson. “Judge Kane’s ringing opinion strikes a powerful blow for a common sense approach to political disclosure laws.”
Diana Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) organized the non-profit CSG and found it nearly impossible to carry out the activities of a small non-profit group without fear of running afoul of Colorado’s complex campaign finance laws. Hsieh said “I’m thrilled our group can focus on educating Coloradans without being hampered by the Colorado campaign finance system. Our experiences with Colorado’s system have been confusing and dispiriting, but this ruling clears the way for more speech. We shouldn’t have to register and file these meaningless reports with the State to speak on moral and political topics of public concern.”
“No group that spends very little money, and whose principal product is a lengthy and heavily-footnoted white paper, should need the state’s permission to speak,” said Dickerson. “Despite good intentions, Colorado’s voters approved laws with that unreasonable and unconstitutional result.”
A copy of the court’s ruling is available here.
A background paper on the lawsuit can be viewed here.