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16 May 2011

Ari Armstrong: Two Op-Eds on Free Speech

By Diana Hsieh

Ari Armstrong published two great op-eds in defense of free speech last week, based on his (and my) recent work opposing campaign finance regulations. CSG, as you might recall, has been subject to onerous demands for disclosure of contributions and expenditures in order to speak out against Amendment 48 and Amendment 62.

First, Ari published "Colorado's campaign laws throw common sense out the window" in the Grand Junction Free Press. It begins:

It is December of 1787. You hold an intense interest in a revolutionary document, the proposed Constitution for the United States. Will you speak out, or will you remain silent?

Maybe you could write out your thoughts and print them in a pamphlet to distribute in your town. Pamphlets, signed and unsigned, for decades played a crucial role in American political discourse; eventually they would fill such books as "Pamphlets of the American Revolution." Or you could rent out a room to hold a meeting. You contemplate the opportunities.

Your friend just returned from Pennsylvania, where he witnessed an attack on James Wilson, a key drafter of the Constitution. Eventually, this story would become part of the tapestry of Catherine Drinker Bowen's book "Miracle at Philadelphia." These are tense times. Should you speak out anonymously?

You have heard the debate over the missing Bill of Rights. Would the new federal government protect such cherished liberties as freedom of speech? In just a few years such concerns would give rise to the First Amendment, guaranteeing that "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble..."

Now imagine, if you can, the impossible absurdity of some bureaucrat standing up to proclaim, "Anyone wishing to speak out on the proposed Constitution must first register with the proper authorities, then report to those authorities the names and addresses of every significant donor to your cause, as well as all of your significant expenses, as defined by said authorities, on penalty of daily fines, and in accordance with a hundred pages of dense legalese. To assist you with this process, the government will run classes instructing you on the proper way to speak your minds."
Go read the whole thing.

Second, Ari published "Public's 'right to know' can clash with right to free speech" in the Colorado Springs Gazette:
According to the principle of free speech embodied in the First Amendment, people have the right to speak their minds on the issues important to them, free from government interference. They have the right to finance the propagation of their beliefs and to coordinate with others to speak.

According to Jenny Flanagan of Colorado Common Cause, the public has a "right to know" the financial details of those who fight funded campaigns for or against ballot measures. However, the laws required to establish this alleged public "right" necessarily violate the free speech rights of individuals.

The state's campaign laws, approved by voters in 2002 and enshrined in Article XXVIII of Colorado's Constitution, impose burdensome reporting requirements that especially harm small citizen groups.

If you wish to devote even a small budget to speaking out on a ballot measure, you must register with the government and report your finances as an "issue committee."

To do this, you must work your way through 100 pages of dense legalese compiled by the Secretary of State. Then, you must obey complex and time-consuming reporting requirements, tracking in exhaustive detail your donors and expenses. If you make a minor paperwork error, you face fines of $50 per day per violation, though you might be able to beg the Secretary of State's office to waive your fines.

Even if you get through all that, an attack lawyer can still sue you under the laws for any error, however trivial, real or concocted. Just ask Matt Arnold of Clear the Bench, who was sued under the campaign laws even after he followed the advice of the (former) Secretary of State. These burdens especially discourage small citizen groups from getting involved in the political process.
Go read the whole thing.

Great work, Ari!

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