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29 October 2010

Free Speech Versus Regulated Speech: My Experience

By Diana Hsieh

As some of you might recall, the Coalition for Secular Government is subject to Colorado's campaign finance laws due to our pledge-funded policy paper against Amendment 62: The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life.

For those of you curious about the ins and outs of the speech regulations with which I must comply, I present this excerpt from Colorado Campaign and Political Finance Manual:

Issue committees

Definition: Any person, other than a natural person, or any group of two or more persons, including natural persons, that has a major purpose of supporting or opposing any ballot issue or ballot question, AND that has accepted or made contributions or expenditures in excess of two hundred dollars to support or oppose any ballot issue or ballot question OR has printed two hundred or more petition sections.

Issue committee status applies to organizations made up of members who support or oppose an issue in their community. Please familiarize yourself with the laws concerning issue committees before you as a group engage in political activity, to ensure that you comply with any campaign finance laws that may apply.

You must register an issue committee if you:

* Are a group of two or more individuals (natural persons) or businesses (or both);

* That supports or opposes a ballot issue or ballot question (see below for definition); AND one of

* You have accepted or made contributions or expenditures of $200 or more to support or oppose that ballot issue or ballot question; OR

* You have printed more than 200 petition sections or more than 200 petition sections have been accepted. (This provision effective 1/1/2011)

Registration and reporting requirements

Registration is required within 10 calendar days of accepting contributions or making expenditures in excess of $200 to support or oppose any ballot issue or ballot question.

Issue committees at the state, county, or special district level, or those active in multiple counties or special districts, register with and report to the Secretary of State. Municipal issue committees (those supporting or opposing ballot measures at the local municipal only) register with the municipal clerk. Filing dates vary depending on whether your issue committee is statewide, county, special district, school district, etc. Please consult TRACER for the filing calendar applicable to your committee.

Only the registered agent may sign and electronically file the committee's reports.

Any amendments or changes to your registration must be filed with the appropriate officer within five days of the change.

There are no contribution limits or prohibitions for contributions to issue committees.

The name and address of the contributor must be reported for all contributions of $20 or more, and the contributor's occupation and employer must be listed for contributions of $100 or more.

An issue committee may only be closed by filing a termination report indicating a "zero" balance. Issue committees may return unexpended campaign funds to the contributors or donate them to a charitable organization recognized by the Internal Revenue Service.

A disclaimer statement is required on communications produced by expenditures of more than $1,000 made by an issue committee.

Major Contribution Report

Contributions received within 30 days before a primary or general election, which exceed $1,000, must be reported as "major contributions" in the TRACER system in addition to reporting such contributions on regular reports.
The Coalition for Secular Government is clearly subject to those regulations: we're a group, our major work is our policy paper against Amendment 62, and we're accepting and spending more than $200, thanks to the generous people who pledged to support the policy paper. Hence, we must comply.

Initially, I thought that those campaign finance instructions were clear enough. They'd be a pain, but at least I'd know what to do. However, now that I've submitted two reports, I can't say that any longer. For example:
  • I've promoted the policy paper via Facebook advertisements. I used my own personal credit card for that, and I've not yet reimbursed myself from CSG's funds. So when does that become an expenditure that I must report -- when my personal credit card is charged or when I reimburse myself?
  • Many people paid me through PayPal, which was awesome, because that's more convenient than checks. However, PayPal automatically takes a small percentage in fees from such transactions. So what do I report as the donation amount -- the amount given or the amount received?
  • When I receive checks, I don't report them until they're deposited in the bank. However, does the same apply to payments via PayPal? And in my case, I had limitations placed on my PayPal account for a while that prevented me from accessing the funds. Was I obliged to report those funds, even though temporarily inaccessible?
In short, the laws are just not clear. As a result, I've tried to do whatever seemed like the safest option open to me. I don't have an army of lawyers to guide me... and even if I did, that might not be enough! With every wrong move, I risk $50 per day in fines.

Of course, the fundamental problem with such regulations is not that compliance is difficult, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking. That's true, and it's important, but it's not essential. These campaign finance regulations would be wrong, even if compliance with them was easy, quick, and fun. Even in that case, the regulations would be a blatant violation of every person's free speech rights. People should not have to register with the government to speak their minds. They should not have to register with the government to donate money so that others can speak for them.

Speaking personally, I feel that violation of free speech rights more clearly and more personally now than ever before. I've been forced -- coerced, at the point of a gun -- to spend hours of my time attempting to comply with these regulations, so that I might have permission to speak my mind. That's vile -- and it's disheartening to me.

And I'm not alone in those feelings. The practical result of such speech regulations that is that ordinary citizens keep quiet, while well-funded "special interests" dominate the political debates. That's not an unintended consequence: that's what the politicians and bureaucrats want, I think. Free speech in America is under assault -- not by outright censorship but rather by devious regulations in the name of "transparency" and "fairness."

I hope that makes you angry -- angry enough to want to strike back at the politicians and bureaucrats muzzling all of us. If so, then let me suggest that you donate to the free speech work of the Institute for Justice. IJ is the only organization that I know to be fighting for free speech, including against campaign finance laws, on principle and by concerted effort. And they're effective too! I plan to write another check to IJ -- once again, directed toward their free speech projects -- in the next few days. If you want to protect free speech rights in America, then I urge you to do the same.

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