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27 December 2011

News Media on Colorado's Campaign Finance Reforms

By Diana Hsieh

The December 15th hearing on campaign finance reform attracted a fair bit of news coverage.

(1) An AP story by Kristen Wyatt was published in the Pueblo Chieftain and the Aspen Times so far. I'm quoted in it:

"They will be helpful for people like me, who are part-time activists, so they don't lose their shirts in a campaign-finance lawsuit," said Diana Hsieh, who campaigned last year against an unsuccessful ballot measure that would have banned abortion.
I'd hoped to see the article appear in more venues -- not just because I'm quoted -- but because the article was a good and fair account of the debate over the proposed rule changes. But alas, that seems unlikely to happen now.

(2) In an article in the Durango Herald, Ari Armstrong was quoted (although wrongly identified), followed by that horrid quote from Senator Morse:
"I think it's a travesty and a mockery of the First Amendment that Colorado citizens are being dragged into court for daring to engage in the political process," said Ari Armstrong, a libertarian activist from Grand Junction.

But state Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said people who want to run campaigns that persuade others how to vote need to follow the rules of transparency. "Turns out that complying with these things is complicated and does take a lawyer, but that's the price of transparency," Morse said.
(3) The article in the Denver Post focused on the very confusing debate about the filing deadlines.

(4) Also, since I don't think that I blogged about it before, but in early December, Vince Carroll penned an excellent op-ed in support of Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. It's worth a read.

If you want to keep up with the news on this topic, you can follow the Facebook page that I've created:

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26 December 2011

Newt's Nutty Abortion Stance

By Ari

Today two articles came out slamming Newt Gingrich for embracing the hard-line anti-abortion "personhood" movement.

Paul Hsieh wrote the first for Pajamas Media. He emphasizes the fact that Gingrich's proposals would ban the birth control pill and IUD. He writes, "If Gingrich (or any other 'personhood' supporter) wins the 2012 GOP nomination, the future legality of birth control pills and IUDs would immediately become a national political issue, to the detriment of the Republicans. Just as the 'personhood' issue tipped the swing state of Colorado in favor of the Democrats in 2010, it could also tip a few critical swing states in favor of Obama in 2012."

I wrote the other article for The Objective Standard. Like Paul, I discuss the strategic foolishness of Republicans embracing the "personhood" movement, referencing Ken Buck's loss of a U.S. Senate Seat. I also discuss Gingrich's comments regarding birth control.

One additional point I make is that Gingrich's proposals would subject women who get abortion to severe criminal penalties:

If, as Personhood USA asserts, a zygote is a person with the same right to life as a born infant or adult, then any action that intentionally kills a zygote, embryo, or fetus constitutes murder, as a representative of the organization emphasized during a November news conference. By the logic of the position and in accordance with existing murder statutes, abortion would be legally prosecuted as murder. Any doctor or husband who assisted in an abortion would be prosecuted as an accessory to murder. A Canadian anti-abortion group forthrightly argues that women who get abortions should face severe prison sentences. A Colorado supporter of Personhood USA explicitly calls for the death penalty for women who get abortions.


For a more detailed discussion of the issue, see the essay by Diana Hsieh and me, "The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties."

Originally published at Ari Armstrong's blog.

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23 December 2011

The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties

By Diana Hsieh

Last week, Ari Armstrong's and my new paper on abortion rights -- The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties -- was published in the The Objective Standard. Happily, our article is available for free to everyone.

Here's the opening paragraph:

In recent years, antiabortion activists have stepped up their attacks on a woman's right to abortion and have achieved a series of victories in their efforts to outlaw the procedure. This increasing assault poses a major threat not only to women's right to abortion, but, more broadly, to individual rights as such. Rights form a logical unity, and to the extent that any are threatened, all are threatened. The antiabortionists' war on a woman's right to her body is ultimately a war on all our rights, including our rights to property, free trade, and freedom of speech. To demonstrate this, we will briefly survey the goals, methods, successes, and rationale of today's antiabortion movement; we will then turn to the reasons women seek abortions, to the nature of rights and the positive case for a woman's right to abortion, and finally to the reasons why any restriction on abortion rights necessarily clears the way for violations of other rights.
If you like the article, please share it with friends and fellow activists. Given that conservatives tend to be hostile to abortion rights -- or at least squishy about them -- we think that our article is one that desperately needs to be circulated in free-market and tea-party circles.

Again, you can read the whole article here: The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties.

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22 December 2011

My Updated Testimony on Colorado's Campaign Finance Rules

By Diana Hsieh

Last week, I posted my testimony on the proposed changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules. But based on the discussion at the hearing, I realized that I was wrong on certain points. So on Tuesday, I revised and re-submitted that testimony. That's below.

You can find all of the testimony submitted so far on the Secretary of State's website. I plan to blog some of the better testimony over the next few weeks.

Remember, you have until this Friday, December 23rd, to submit testimony in defense of free speech. You can submit it by e-mailing Andrea Gyger at andrea.gyger@sos.state.co.us. (Reference "8 CCR 1505-6," and please indicate if you want your e-mail address and any other personal information submitted included in or omitted from the published version of your testimony.)

My testimony is also available as a PDF.

Comments on the Secretary of State's Proposed Rules Concerning Campaign Finance

Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
diana@dianahsieh.com
Coalition for Secular Government
http://www.SecularGovernment.us
December 20th, 2011


My name is Diana Hsieh. I'm a philosopher by trade, writing and speaking on the application of philosophy to the challenges of everyday life. I'm not particularly active in politics, except on the issue of abortion rights. In 2008 and 2010, I worked with Ari Armstrong against the proposed "personhood" amendments to our state constitution. We didn't just want to see these measures defeated: we wanted to explain and defend our view of the proper basis of abortion rights. The "personhood" ballot measures were a prime opportunity for us to do that.

Unfortunately, our efforts were seriously hampered by Colorado's onerous and intrusive campaign finance laws. The same will happen in the upcoming 2012 election, despite the proposed rule changes. As a citizen activist, that's extremely frustrating and disheartening. Nonetheless, I support most of the proposed rule changes as an important step in the right direction. They clarify the demands on people who choose to speak about Colorado elections, and they limit the legal risks of doing so. Activists like myself still won't have anything close to free speech, but we'll have slightly freer speech.

To explain why I support most of the proposed rule changes, I'd like to briefly recount my experiences in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Then I'll explain my reasons for supporting the proposed rule changes pertaining to issue committees, albeit with some reservations. (I described my experiences in complying with Colorado's campaign finance laws in more detail in the May 3rd, 2011 hearing on raising the reporting threshold for issue committees from $200 to $5000. That testimony is included below.)

My Experiences, In Brief

In 2008, Ari Armstrong and I wrote a policy paper against Amendment 48, the proposed "personhood" amendment to Colorado's constitution. I published it under the auspices of the "Coalition for Secular Government," which was then and still is now, little more than me and a blog. Ari and I wrote the paper without compensation, and I spent a few hundred dollars of my own money to promote it.

Only by happenstance, I learned that I was obliged to file campaign finance reports. With my first non-zero report, the hassle of typing in the names and addresses of Office Max, The UPS Store, and the Post Office (where I spent just under $200 in total on office supplies, photocopies, and stamps to distribute the paper) convinced me that to spend any money to promote our paper was too much trouble. I felt that chilling effect on my speech very keenly.

In 2010, Ari Armstrong and I revised and expanded our paper to oppose Amendment 62, the next "personhood" amendment on the ballot. This time, the work was funded by generous donors, in the form of 63 pledges ranging from $4 to $300 for a total of $2795. These people, most of whom I knew personally, wanted Ari and me to speak for them, to explain and defend our common view of abortion rights, and we were eager to do that.

When I reviewed the campaign finance regulations, I was appalled to discover that I was required to report the name and address of any contributor giving $20 or more, plus the occupation and employer for any donation over $100. Why was I so upset? First, the process of compiling and filing the reports was extremely burdensome, eating away hours that I could have spent opposing Amendment 62. Second, my contributors were entitled to privacy, particularly on a controversial topic like abortion. Third, I feared that even a trivial error in a report could result in massive fines, plus attorney fees to defend myself. The little money that I'd reserved to promote the paper, plus my own payment for writing the paper, would quickly vanish: I'd be forced to sacrifice my personal savings just to exercise my right to free speech. Ultimately, the result was basically the same as in 2008: I was unwilling undergo the troubles and risks of filing more reports, and so I opted not to raise any funds for our work beyond those 63 pledges. Again, I felt the chilling effect of these campaign finance laws.

Based on these experiences, I know that Colorado's campaign finance laws constitute a major violation of free speech rights. First and foremost, free speech means that people are entitled to express and advocate their ideas without forcible inference from the government or anyone else. Second, free speech means that people are entitled to join together in their speech: they have a right to pool their resources and their talents so as to more effectively express and advocate shared values and ideas. Third, free speech means that people are entitled to say as much or as little as they please, including speaking (or funding others' speech) anonymously.

Here in Colorado, we do not have free speech in elections. We the people cannot join together to express our views on upcoming elections--not unless we register with the government and submit regular reports disclosing our identities and minute details of our finances. Any failure to do so--even if only some trivial error--can result in being dragged to court by our political opponents and then being forced to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines. In essence, we speak about elections not by right, but by government permission.

Moreover, to obtain that government permission to speak on elections, people must be willing and able to navigate a labyrinth of red tape and paperwork. They must be willing and able to pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees and fines. Progressive activists and politicians demand even more "transparency" (i.e. more burdensome and intrusive disclosures) and more "accountability" (i.e. more hefty fines for errors). They know that the current rules stifle speech--particularly the speech of small groups with little money. Their lack of concern for this repression of citizen activists reveals that their goal is not a more informed electorate. Instead, these progressives seek to expand their own political power by any means, including forcibly silencing their opponents. That's disgraceful.

Free speech requires nothing less than repealing or overturning all of Colorado's campaign finance laws. In the meantime, however, the campaign finance rules can be made less confusing, less onerous, and less risky. For the most part, the proposed rule changes are a huge step in that direction, and that's why I support them. Here, I'd like to discuss four proposed changes: (1) the definition of an issue committee, (2) privacy for contributors worried about safety, (3) penalties and waivers, and (4) aggregating contributions and expenditures.

(1) The Definition of an Issue Committee

As I understand the current rules, any group of two or more persons qualifies as an "issue committee" if the group (a) works for or against a ballot measure as a "major purpose" and (b) spends or receives more than $200.

Proposed Rule 4.1 affirms that the $200 reporting threshold is raised to $5000, although litigation is pending. I support that change: small groups with limited resources should be able to advocate for or against ballot measures without incurring the onerous burden of registering, opening a new bank account, and then reporting their finances. As I said in the May hearing, however, I'd like the reporting threshold to be raised even higher, at least to $10,000.

Proposed Rule 1.12.3 defines a "major purpose" as meaning that more than 30% of the group's spending concerns a ballot measure. That test seems reasonable in the abstract, yet in practice, that would disproportionately burden small activist groups. Instead, I propose that the $5000 reporting threshold should be used for the "major purpose" test too: if a group spends $5000 or more on a ballot measure, then they should be required to report as an issue committee, whether that spending constitutes 5% or 95% of their total spending.

Mostly, however, the campaign finance rules should clearly identify which groups qualify as issue committees, so that people can know whether they're obliged to report or not. Under the current rules, where "major purpose" is left undefined, groups doing any work related to ballot measures must file purely as a defensive tactic.

However, I'm doubtful that any bright line test for "major purpose" could be applied to my own ever-expanding work against the "personhood" movement. In the 2012 election season, the Coalition for Secular Government won't be narrowly focused on defeating Colorado's likely "personhood" amendment: we plan to work against "personhood" measures on the ballot in other states, as well as against the "personhood" movement and for abortion rights more broadly. Any attempt to estimate what spending concerned Colorado's ballot measure would be arbitrary. Hence, I'll have to register and file reports as an issue committee, even if only as self-defense. I don't see any way to apply the "major purpose" criterion objectively in a case like ours, where work on the ballot measure is part and parcel of a much larger and broader advocacy effort. Nonetheless, I support a clarification of this rule. The current language can be interpreted any which way, and the proposed definition of a "major purpose" would clarify the criterion for many groups.

(2) Privacy for Contributors Worried about Safety

By the current rules, reports must include personal information about contributors, such as names and addresses (if the contribution is $20 or more) and occupations and employers (if the contribution is $100 or more). That personal information is then published on the internet for anyone to review. The publication of sensitive personal information about contributors has been of particular concern for me, given the harassment and even violence perpetrated by some anti-abortion activists against abortion rights supporters. In 2010, I called the Secretary of State's office to see whether the home addresses of my contributors could be kept private based on such concerns, and I was told "No." That was false, as I learned at the December 15th hearing. (The policy is included in the 2010 manual, but I missed it.)

The current rules permit people who fear for their own or their family's safety due to information disclosed on any campaign finance report to request that such information be redacted. Proposed Rule 20 would extend the protection offered to redacted information: it would not be "subject to disclosure under the Colorado Open Records Act." That's good, but I would suggest instituting a well-defined and speedy process for redacting such information, so that sensitive information is not ever released on the web. Otherwise, the protection is basically worthless, and people who fear for their safety will not donate to political causes. I would suggest that the group filing the report should be able to flag certain records as private, and those records would not be published unless the application for privacy from the contributor (perhaps required to be submitted at the same time as the report, or within a few days thereof) was denied by the Secretary of State's office.

Moreover, if possible, I would recommend allowing the redaction of information for more reasons than just "safety." People have a variety of perfectly valid reasons for wishing to contribute to causes anonymously, such as wishing to avoid unpleasant conflicts with co-workers, clients, or neighbors over politics. A person with unpopular opinions should not be forced by law to risk ostracism or unemployment to support a political cause. More broadly, a person should have the right to speak anonymously, and, by extension, the right to enable others to speak for him while remaining anonymous. That's not possible under Colorado's campaign finance laws, and it's just another way that they violate free speech rights.

(3) Penalties and Waivers

Under the current rules, failures to comply with the campaign finance rules can incur fines of up to $50 per day per violation, without limit. Fines have often grown far beyond a group's ability to pay. According to the 2010 manual, the Secretary of State's office grants waivers and reductions of fines at their discretion using the vague "good cause" standard. That makes the process ripe for abuse, including partisan favoritism and other forms of bias.

In addition, fines for campaign finance violations are used to silence speech. Groups (usually on the left) can and do sue over minor errors in order to drain the resources of political opponents (usually on the right) by forcing them to spend limited funds on fines and attorney fees rather than advocacy. That's not just dirty politics: it's a violation of the free speech rights of the people who contributed those funds.

As far as I understand, proposed Rule 18 would establish clear standards for penalties and waivers. Waivers would be granted for specified good causes, penalties would start small then increase with successive offenses, penalties would be limited based on the resources of the group, and mistakes would be penalized far less than willful failures to comply. Also, total penalties would be limited to $50 per day per report for 180 days, i.e. $9000 per report.

These changes are hugely important, in my opinion. The possibility of incurring hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines for failing to comply with wildly confusing campaign finance rules should terrify any sane person. More than anything else, the current possibility of ridiculously large fines, totally disconnected from any intentional wrongdoing and out of proportion to the group's ability to pay, silences political speech in Colorado.

The current rules, in fact, make election speech into a privilege of the wealthy, for only they can afford to pay the current fines. That's terribly unjust: the poor should have just as much right to speak as the rich. That's why I'd recommend limiting the fines even further to at most $1000 per report. I'd rather see a thousand well-funded groups pay fines for campaign finance violations as "cost of doing business" than silence one ordinary citizen activist.

(4) Aggregating Contributions and Expenditures

By the current rules, contributions of $20 or more must be itemized on reports, including the name and address of the contributor. The rules don't say any more than that, and hence, a person can give multiple donations of less than $20, and those donations are never itemized. The same applies to expenditures.

Rule 10.1 changes that policy: if contributions from a given source for a given reporting period total $20 or more, then they must be aggregated and itemized on the report, even if each individual contribution is less than $20. (The same does not apply to the $100 threshold for occupation and employer, however.) Rule 10.2 does the same for expenditures: for each reporting period, expenditures to the same source must be aggregated, then itemized if over $20.

I'm partly sympathetic to the goal of this rule change. The current rules are unclear, and to allow many donations under $20 from the same source without itemization seems like a "loophole" that should be closed. However, to close this "loophole" entails dramatically increasing the burdens imposed on issue committees, such as myself. How so?

Under the current rules, I need only collect personal data about a contributor if he contributes $20 or more. That's a ridiculously low threshold, but at least it's a bright line for data collection. Under the new rule, however, I'd have to collect personal data from every contributor, even from someone who just gives me a $1 bill. Why? That person might give me twenty such bills over the course of the reporting period, and in case that happens, I need to identify all donations from that person in my records, add them up for the reporting period, and then itemize them in my report if they total $20 or more. At that point, I might as well just itemize every contribution (and every expenditure too), whatever the amount, just to be safe.

The burden of complying with this rule change would be enormous for many groups, particularly those of us who rely on small donations. Oddly, the rule change would encourage groups not to accept donations smaller than $20, simply for the sake of clarity in disclosure requirements, which would effectively silence people unable or unwilling to donate so much. Moreover, contributors would be burdened too, as they'd be obliged to give their name and address with every contribution. Also, the names and addresses of donors giving less than $20 would likely become part of the public record in any lawsuit. In effect, this rule change would make small anonymous contributions impossible, and that might deter many people from contributing any dollar amount. Finally, the unscrupulous political opponents of an issue committee could easily abuse this new rule. A person could make a few small contributions to an opponent over the course of a reporting period, some in cash or otherwise anonymously, in the hope of entrapping the group in a campaign finance violation. And then, if his name and address wasn't listed on the report, he could sue.

Also, proposed Rule 10.1.2 says that any contribution from an LLC must be itemized, whatever the amount. According to the 2010 manual, that's not currently required for issue committees, but only for political committees. Extending the rule to issue committees would impose a serious burden. In my own case, I'd have to inquire with every contributor to ensure that the funds are not from an LLC, for if so, I'd have to somehow flag that contribution in my records to remind myself to itemize it on the report. For me, simply refusing contributions from LLCs might be easier. If so, the rule would have the effect of stifling the speech of people who choose to organize themselves in a corporate form.

For these reasons, I strongly oppose these rule changes on contributions and expenditures. The new rules seems easy, simple, and fair in the abstract. Yet in practice, they would impose a major burden on issue committees and become fodder for partisan abuse. I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider these changes.

Summary

In summary, I support most of the proposed changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules. The changes would make the rules less confusing, less onerous, and less risky. That's good for free speech and good for fair elections. However, our ultimate goal must be fully free speech in Colorado's elections--and that requires the elimination of all campaign finance laws. Mandatory disclosures do not make elections "transparent," and hefty fines do not make groups "accountable." Disclosures and their associated penalties only silence people, particularly ordinary citizens seeking to speak their minds.

Contact Information

Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
diana@dianahsieh.com

Coalition for Secular Government
http://www.SecularGovernment.us
P.O. Box 851
Sedalia, CO 80135

Links

Coalition for Secular Government

Coalition for Secular Government on Amendment 48 (2008)

Coalition for Secular Government on Amendment 62 (2010)

Addendum: My Experience with Colorado's Campaign Finance Laws

The following testimony was submitted for the May 3, 2011 hearing concerning raising the reporting threshold for issue committees.

My name is Diana Hsieh. I'm an ordinary citizen, albeit with a Ph.D in philosophy. I earn my living my writing and speaking on applying ethical principles to daily life. I'm not a political activist by trade. I have strong views on politics, but I'm not terribly interested in engaging in the rough and tumble of politics.

On occasion, however, I jump into the fray, usually because I care about some issue so deeply that I just can't stand to remain silent. That's almost always some issue local to Colorado. That happened in 2008, with Amendment 48, then again in 2010 with Amendment 62. Those were the "personhood" amendments, and I opposed them vehemently.

Here, I wish to recount how the existing campaign finance rules impaired my ability and willingness to speak against those amendments. Then I will explain why the proposed revisions will have the very same chilling effects on the speech of ordinary citizens like me. Finally, I will suggest changes to the current system that would substantially protect freedom of speech within the constraints of Colorado's constitution.

In 2008, Ari Armstrong and I wrote and published an 18-page policy paper against Amendment 48. We didn't merely want to oppose the advocates of "personhood," we also wanted to offer an alternative to the major pro-choice coalition, which we regarded as compromising on the moral issues. They didn't speak for us; we wanted to speak for ourselves.

Ari and I published that 2008 policy paper under the auspices of the "Coalition for Secular Government." That's a nonprofit corporation registered in Colorado, but really, that's just me and a blog. The Coalition for Secular Government didn't solicit or accept donations, and I paid for its few expenses personally. Consistent with that, Ari and I wrote the paper without any compensation whatsoever: it was purely a volunteer effort. After we completed the paper, I spent a few hundred dollars of my own money to print and mail copies of the paper to media and activists in Colorado.

At the time, I didn't imagine that these activities would be subject to any campaign regulations. After all, I was just exercising my right to speak freely on an issue that I cared deeply about -- or so I thought. However, just to be sure, I checked the web site of Colorado's Secretary of State. I found nothing relevant to my activities, so I thought I was in the clear.

However, I was very wrong in that. A friend knowledgeable about Colorado's campaign finance laws told me about the regulations for "issue groups." So I went back to the web site of Colorado's Secretary of State, searching for information. Even once I knew what to look for, it took me over an hour to find the relevant regulations. Even after I read them again and again, I was still quite confused about how to comply with the law.

More importantly, I was appalled that my home state forbade me from speaking freely on an ballot issue that I cared deeply about -- even just to spend a few hundred dollars of my own money promoting a paper that I wrote with a friend. Even worse, I could be subject to hefty fines for failing to comply with laws that I could neither find by diligent searching, nor understand by careful reading.

In addition, I found complying with the regulations -- entering store names, addresses, and amounts for my few purchases of photocopies, envelopes, labels, and stamps -- to be so onerous that, after filing my first report, I swore that I'd not promote the paper in any way that required money thereafter. Hence, the burdens of complying with the law -- even just to spend a few hundred dollars -- were sufficient to silence me, in part.

The same problems arose in 2010 when Ari Armstrong and I wanted to significantly revise and expand our paper for Amendment 62. Instead working for weeks on the new paper for free, we used a new business model that I'd developed in the meantime to solicit pledges to fund the project. People who supported our work could pledge to fund it in any amount they chose. If $2000 or more was pledged in total, we would update and expand the policy paper. People would only pay their pledges if we completed the work by the deadline. Much to our delight, we received 63 pledges, ranging from $4 to $300, for a total of $2795. These contributors agreed with our position, and they wanted us to speak for them in defense of abortion rights.

Ari and I were enthused and motivated by these pledges. They were concrete proof that we weren't alone: other people cared about what we were doing and supported us with their own hard-earned dollars. Plus, we were very grateful to be able to pay ourselves for the many hours of work required to revise, publish, and promote the new paper. With these funds, we could also buy Facebook ads to promote the paper.

Alas, my enthusiasm wore off quickly when I remembered the reporting requirements for "issue committees." Once again, I had trouble finding the rules: I had to call the office of the Secretary of State to be pointed to their location on the web site. When I realized that I'd have to report the names and addresses of most of our contributors, I was deeply distraught. That reporting of personal information was required for any contribution of $20 or more. For contributions of $100 or more, I had to report the person's employer and its address too.

I was upset because such reporting violated the privacy of my contributors. As part of their right to free speech, people should be able to speak anonymously -- or fund the speech of others anonymously. These campaign finance regulations forbid that for any contribution of $20 or above, and that's wrong. Voters do not have a right to know the sources of funding for other people's political speech, any more than your neighbor has a right to know what you got for your birthday or what you buy at the bookstore.

Moreover, I feared serious harm might come to my contributors from this invasion of their privacy. Due to the furor over abortion in some quarters, the publication of personal information about my contributors made them easy targets for harassment or even violence by anti-abortion activists. Would you be willing to risk your life or your job in order to donate $25, $50, or $100 to a political cause? That's what my contributors were asked to do, and that's not reasonable.

On a more personal level, I was disheartened by the prospect of compiling and filing the reports. I knew that process would be far more onerous this time than in 2008. It was even worse than I expected, however, for reasons that I will explain shortly.

For a while, I considered canceling the project entirely. However, I couldn't stand the thought of being silenced by these campaign finance regulations. Instead, I decided to inform every pledger of the reporting requirements, then allow them to cancel or decrease their pledges, if they wished to preserve their privacy. Most were shocked and angered that the state of Colorado required me to gather and publish their personal information in order to accept their support for my work. Some reduced their pledges to be below the $20 and $100 thresholds. Most didn't want to be silenced, so they reaffirmed their commitment to pay what they'd pledged. A few were even so angry that they increased their pledges.

Consequently, Ari and I went forward with the project, revising and expanding the paper into a robust 43-page defense of abortion rights titled "The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception." I was -- and still am -- extremely proud of that paper. Yet the burden imposed on me by these campaign finance regulations was almost too heavy to bear.

To comply with the law, I spent hours filling out and faxing paperwork to open bank and PayPal accounts for the Coalition for Secular Government. Then, once contributors began to pay their pledges, I had to compile and submit reports to the state every two weeks. Each report required a few hours of my time, and each was due a mere two to three business days after the close of the reporting period. To file the reports, I had to keep an extra set of books in an Excel spreadsheet, just so that I could track my contributions and expenditures in the format required for the reports. Of course, the reports for the state never quite matched my own records on the first try, so I'd have to double-check and triple-check every entry. I had to e-mail contributors for their addresses, and sometimes for places of work. Sometimes, finding the address of a business was a difficult chore: I was in a panic at 11:30 pm on the night that a report was due, desperately trying to find a physical address for Facebook. Even once I'd gathered all that information, the process of inputting it into the system -- typing in address after address -- was a major chore.

To add insult to injury, I was petrified of making a mistake with every report I filed. Too much was unknown to me -- for example, the Facebook ads for the paper were paid for on my personal credit card, so should I report that as an expenditure when that credit card was billed, when it was paid, or when I reimbursed myself? When should I report contributions sent as checks -- when I picked them up from the post office or when I deposited them in my account? If a person wrote two checks for $19, would I have to report his name and address if I received and/or deposited them on the same day? I didn't know the answers to those questions, and I couldn't afford to consult a lawyer. I could only try to be careful -- and hope for the best.

However, I forgot to file my first report for a few days, due to a mess of other pressing problems in my life from a backed up septic pipe in the house to scheduled travel to the east coast. In addition, I didn't have all the information that I needed for that report, including the addresses of many contributors. On realizing my error, I was in a state of dull panic for days, worrying that the $1000 I'd earned for writing the paper -- if not more from my personal funds -- would vanish in a puff of $50-per-violation-per-day fines. So I begged for a waiver. That was degrading, but I was desperate, particularly because I had no idea how some unknown state employee would judge my failure to file the report on time. Much to my relief, the waiver was granted some weeks later.

Those experiences strongly discouraged me from raising and spending more money to oppose Amendment 62, as I would have done otherwise. I could have asked for contributions to fund more Facebook ads, for example, but I didn't want to have to file more reports. I was simply weary of and disgusted by the whole process.

In short, compliance with the campaign finance laws consumed hours of my life -- hours that I could have spent promoting the paper, writing op-eds, working on other projects, or even just watching a movie with my husband. With every dollar contributed or expended, I risked fines that I couldn't afford to pay. I was unable to speak as a matter of right, but rather only by government permission. I felt the pressure to just give in and give up -- to say nothing -- very keenly.

How many other ordinary citizens decline to speak out on ballot measures due to these regulations? I can't give you numbers, but as one of those ordinary citizens, I can tell you that the chilling effect is very real.

Now, I'd like to turn to the proposed revisions to these regulations, whereby the reporting threshold would be increased from $200 to $5000 for total expenditures or contributions. By that new standard, the Coalition for Secular Government would have been exempt from filing in 2008 and 2010. As far as I'm concerned, that's not good enough: you're tacking up curtains on a house too ugly for anything but the wrecking ball.

Unfortunately, our state constitution forbids full recognition and respect for free speech rights in its demand for campaign finance regulations. However, the Secretary of State can and ought to make those regulations minimally intrusive and minimally burdensome. The proposed revisions do not do that: the reforms must go deeper.

So what's wrong with the proposed revisions?

First, the proposed threshold of $5000 in total expenditures and contributions is far too low. A grassroots group without any resources or employees -- such as the Coalition for Secular Government -- could easily exceed that amount in contributions or expenditures, just to expose a few thousand voters to its message.

Second, the threshold will burden even groups who never e.xceed it Groups under the threshold will be obliged to monitor total contributions and expenditures on work related to ballot measures just to ensure that they're not obliged to report -- or risk huge fines.

Third, such a threshold would encourage small groups not to collect or spend more than $5000, so as not to be burdened by onerous and invasive reporting requirements. As such, their speech would be silenced, as if by a glass ceiling set at $5000.

Fourth, once a group reaches the $5000 threshold, the reporting requirements are just as intrusive and onerous as they are now -- meaning far too intrusive and onerous. Every $20 contribution will have to be reported, as well every $20 purchase at Office Depot. That is not required by the Colorado constitution, and it ought to stop.

Instead of the proposal made, I ask the Secretary of State to reject the whole notion of a threshold for reporting based on total contributions or expenditures. Instead, to comply with the Colorado constitution, only require the reporting of single donations and expenditures when over some significant amount, say $5000. Moreover, full addresses should not be required for either contributions or expenditures. Instead, groups should only report names and perhaps cities.

Moreover, people attempting to speak out should not be subject to fines beyond their ability to pay -- as with the current system of $50 per day per violation. Instead, fines should be proportional to the actual expenditure or contribution -- and require deliberate fraud, not mere mistake or ignorance.

Finally, a group's political opponents should not be able to drag them into court before an election over alleged campaign finance violations in order to silence them, as happened to the proponents of Amendment 48, and surely happens to others routinely.

With such changes to the campaign finance regulations, ordinary citizens in Colorado would be far more free to speak out on political issues than they are now. Under the present system, only large groups with millions of dollars -- armed with lawyers to advise them on the law and assistants to compile and file reports -- can afford to speak freely. The rest of us -- ordinary citizens like me -- are burdened and intimidated into silence. That flatly contradicts the stated purpose of campaign finance regulations in the Colorado constitution -- and the changes proposed by the Secretary of State would only perpetuate that wrong.

Hence, I urge the Secretary of State to reform the current system of campaign finance regulations for "issue groups" in a substantial way, not merely as proposed. If these regulations must exist, make them minimally intrusive and burdensome so as to protect the free speech right of ordinary Colorado citizens.

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21 December 2011

Noodlecast #111: Testimony on Campaign Finance

By Diana Hsieh

Last Thursday, Ari Armstrong, Paul Hsieh, and I testified at the Secretary of State's hearing on the proposed changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules. Ari was kind enough to record and post video of that testimony. (That's a huge amount of work, so thank you, thank you, Ari!)

I've compiled our testimony into a single podcast, and you'll find the videos below too. (I didn't include Matt Arnold's testimony for Clear the Bench Colorado in the podcast, but the video is at the bottom of this post.)

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My testimony for the Coalition for Secular Government:



Paul Hsieh's testimony for Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM):

Ari Armstrong's testimony:



Again, although I didn't include it in the podcast, here's Matt Arnold's testimony for Clear the Bench Colorado:

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Colorado Senator Morse: Election Speech Requires Lawyers

By Diana Hsieh

Here's a short but hugely revealing segment of video by Ari Armstrong from last Thursday's campaign finance hearing.



Here's Ari's summary:

On December 15, 2011, Colorado State Senator John Morse spoke about the state's campaign finance laws at a Secretary of State hearing.

He said, "What we were selling there, if you will, was that people will comply with the law, and there won't be many fines. I think what your experience is showing is that... turns out that complying with all this is complicated, and really does take a lawyer. But that's the price of the transparency, to be able to have these kinds of reporting things."

But Senator, if you have to hire a lawyer or risk hefty fines or lawsuits in order to spend resources speaking out for or against any ballot measure or candidate, that's not free speech.

The proper term for it is censorship.
In other words, the campaign finance laws so vigorously supported by progressives entail that only wealthy people can afford to speak, because only they can afford the lawyers and/or the fines. And they're fine with that.

I don't know any words strong enough to express my disgust with that.

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20 December 2011

Videos: An Early Look at the Election and GOP Candidates

By Diana Hsieh

In last Sunday's Philosophy in Action Webcast, I took an early look at the 2012 election, then surveyed four GOP candidates -- Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson. I've posted all five questions as videos, and so here they are! (Obviously, I'm speaking for myself here, purely as a private citizen, and not for the Coalition for Secular Government.)

The first question was:

What's your view of the upcoming 2012 election? By what standards do you judge the presidential candidates?
My answer, in brief:
In a presidential candidate, I'm not looking for either John Galt or "Anyone But Obama." I'm looking for someone who will do more good than harm to the cause of liberty in America.
Here's the video of my full answer:
The second question was:
Should I support Mitt Romney for US President? What's the proper evaluation of his principles and record on the budget and the debt, health care, foreign policy, immigration, the drug war, abortion, and gay marriage? Does Romney deserve the vote of advocates of individual rights in the primary or the general election?
My answer, in brief:
Mitt Romney is a smooth talker, but his proposal reveal that he has no understanding of individual rights or the economic problems facing America. He's no better than Obama – and likely worse, because the opposition will vanish. I cannot recommend voting for him in the primary or the general election.
Here's the video of my full answer:
The third question was:
Should I support Newt Gingrinch for US President? What's the proper evaluation of his principles and record on the budget and the debt, health care, foreign policy, immigration, the drug war, abortion, and gay marriage? Does Gingrinch deserve the vote of advocates of individual rights in the primary or the general election?
My answer, in brief:
Newt Gingrich is explicitly theocratic, and a major threat to the separation of church and state. He advocates and practices "active governance," meaning right-wing social engineering, not liberty. Like Obama, he is enamored of bold transformative ideas, which could be okay or horrible for liberty. I cannot recommend voting for him in the primary or the general election.
Here's the video of my full answer:
The fourth question was:
Should I support Ron Paul for US President? What's the proper evaluation of his principles and record on the budget and the debt, health care, foreign policy, immigration, the drug war, abortion, and gay marriage? Does Paul deserve the vote of advocates of individual rights in the primary or the general election?
My answer, in brief:
Ron Paul is not even libertarian, but a neo-confederate conservative Christian, albeit with some grasp of basic economics. He's a rationalist, driven by ideology, and not open to facts. He would be very dangerous to elect as president, not just for actual policies, but as a supposed advocate of liberty. I cannot recommend voting for him in the primary or the general election.
Here's the video of my full answer:
The fifth question was:
Should I support Gary Johnson for US President? What's the proper evaluation of his principles and record on the budget and the debt, health care, foreign policy, immigration, the drug war, abortion, and gay marriage? Does Johnson deserve the vote of advocates of individual rights in the primary or the general election? Also, should supporters of Gary Johnson vote for him on a Libertarian Party ticket?
My answer, in brief:
Gary Johnson is not John Galt. However, he's fundamentally oriented toward facts, plus he has good basic principles about liberty. Alas, he was shut out from the race by the media and the establishment GOP. I recommend voting for him in the primary, as well as in the general election, if he runs as the Libertarian Party candidate. I still reject the Libertarian Party, but a protest vote can be delimited to endorse him and not the party.
Here's the video of my full answer:
If you enjoyed these video, please "like" them on YouTube and share them with friends in e-mail and social media! You can also throw a bit of extra love in our tip jar.

All posted webcast videos can be found in the Webcast Archives and on my YouTube channel.

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19 December 2011

Christmas Holiday Snark

By Diana Hsieh

A bit of snark posted to CSG's Facebook Page:

Undoubtedly, Christmas is a religious holiday. The Bible says that Jesus was born on December 25th, and that we should celebrate his birth by decorating a fir tree and telling stories of a jolly fat man in a red suit who gives toys to all the good girls and boys. Go see for yourself! It's in Santa 5:14.
Go here for a bit of Christmas history.

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15 December 2011

Testimony: December 15th Hearing on Campaign Finance

By Diana Hsieh

This morning, I'll be attending and testifying at the Secretary of State's hearing concerning the proposed changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules. The audio from the hearing will be live streamed here. We'll be in the "Blue Spruce Room" from 9 am to 12 pm MST.

I plan to speak, of course, and my written testimony is below. I will be giving the first half, up through the contact information, in person at the meeting. Written testimony by others can be found here. (I'm so grateful to everyone who submitted testimony in favor of greater freedom of speech! That's hugely important, and much appreciated!)

Comments on the Secretary of State's Proposed Rules Concerning Campaign Finance

Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
diana@dianahsieh.com
Coalition for Secular Government
http://www.SecularGovernment.us
diana@dianahsieh.com
December 15th, 2011


My name is Diana Hsieh. I'm a philosopher by trade, writing and speaking on the application of philosophy to the challenges of everyday life. I'm not particularly active in politics, except on the issue of abortion rights. In 2008 and 2010, I worked with Ari Armstrong against the proposed "personhood" amendments to our state constitution. We didn't just want to see these measures defeated: we wanted to explain and defend our view of the proper basis of abortion rights. The "personhood" ballot measures were a prime opportunity for us to do that.

Unfortunately, our efforts were seriously hampered by Colorado's onerous and intrusive campaign finance laws. The same will happen in the upcoming 2012 election, even with the proposed rule changes. As a citizen activist, that's extremely frustrating and disheartening. Nonetheless, I support the proposed rule changes, with one exception. They clarify the demands on people who choose to speak about Colorado elections, and they limit the legal risks of doing so. We won't have fully free speech, but we'll have somewhat freer speech.

To explain why I support most of the proposed rule changes, I'd like to briefly recount my experiences in the 2008 and 2010 elections. (I described these experiences in more detail in the May 3, 2011 hearing on raising the reporting threshold for issue committees from $200 to $5000, and that's included in my written testimony.) After that, I'll explain my reasons for supporting the proposed rule changes pertaining to issue committees, with one exception.

My Experiences, In Brief

In 2008, Ari Armstrong and I wrote a policy paper against Amendment 48, the proposed "personhood" amendment to Colorado's constitution. I published it under the auspices of the "Coalition for Secular Government," which was then and still is now, little more than me and a blog. Ari and I wrote the paper without compensation, and I spent a few hundred dollars of my own money to promote it.

Only by happenstance, I learned that I was obliged to file campaign finance reports. With my first non-zero report, the hassle of typing in the names and addresses of Office Max, The UPS Store, and the Post Office (where I spent just under $200 in total on office supplies, photocopies, and stamps to distribute the paper) convinced me that to spend any money to promote our paper was too much trouble. I felt that chilling effect on my speech very keenly.

In 2010, Ari Armstrong and I revised and expanded our paper to oppose Amendment 62, the next "personhood" amendment on the ballot. This time, the work was funded by generous donors, in the form of 63 pledges ranging from $4 to $300 for a total of $2795. These people, most of whom I knew personally, wanted Ari and me to speak for them, to explain and defend our common view of abortion rights, and we were eager to do that.

When I reviewed the campaign finance regulations, I was appalled to discover that I was required to report the name and address of any contributor giving $20 or more, plus the occupation and employer for any donation over $100. Why was I so upset? First, the process of compiling and filing the reports was extremely burdensome, eating away hours that I could have spent opposing Amendment 62. Second, my contributors were entitled to privacy, particularly on a controversial topic like abortion. Third, I feared that even a trivial error in a report could result in massive fines, plus attorney fees to defend myself. The little money that I'd reserved to promote the paper, plus my own payment for writing the paper, would quickly vanish: I'd be forced to sacrifice my personal savings, just to exercise my right to free speech. That fear stays with me, even now, and gnaws at me. Ultimately, the result was basically the same as in 2008: I was unwilling undergo the troubles and risks of filing more reports, and so I opted not to raise any more funds for our work. Again, I felt the chilling effect of these campaign finance laws.

Based on these experiences, I know that Colorado's campaign finance laws constitute a major violation of free speech rights. Free speech means that people are entitled to express and advocate their ideas without forcible inference from the government or anyone else. Free speech also means that people are entitled to join together in their speech: they have a right to pool their resources and their talents so as to more effectively express and advocate their common ideas.

Here in Colorado, we do not have free speech in elections. We the people are not entitled to join together to express our views on upcoming elections, unless we register with the government and submit regular reports disclosing minute details of our finances. Failure to do so--even if only some trivial error--can result in being dragged into court by our political opponents and then being forced to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines. Here in Colorado, we speak about election issues not by right, but by government permission.

Free speech requires nothing less than repealing or overturning all of our campaign finance laws. In the meantime, however, the campaign finance rules can be made less confusing, less onerous, and less risky. The proposed rule changes are a huge step in that direction (with one exception), and that's why I support them. Here, I'd like to discuss four proposed changes: (1) the definition of an issue committee, (2) privacy for contributors worried about safety, (3) penalties and waivers, and (4) aggregating contributions and expenditures.

(1) The Definition of an Issue Committee

As I understand the current rules, any group of two or more persons qualifies as an "issue committee" if the group (a) works for or against a ballot measure as a "major purpose" and (b) spends or receives more than $200.

Proposed Rule 4.1 affirms that the $200 reporting threshold is raised to $5000, although litigation is pending. I support that change: small groups with limited resources should be able to advocate for or against ballot measures without incurring the onerous burden of registering, opening a new bank account, and then reporting their finances. As I said in the May hearing, however, I'd like the reporting threshold to be raised even higher, at least to $10,000.

Proposed Rule 1.12.3 defines a "major purpose" as meaning that more than 30% of the group's spending concerns a ballot measure. I support that change too. The campaign finance rules should clearly identify which groups qualify as issue committees, so that people can know whether they're obliged to report or not. Without clear criteria, any group doing work related to a ballot measure must file, purely as a defensive measure. However, for the sake of greater freedom of speech, I'd like to see the term "major" in "major purpose" interpreted more narrowly as meaning that over 50% of the group's spending concerns the ballot measure.

As much as I appreciate the bright line created by this rule change, I'm doubtful that it can be applied to my own ever-expanding work against the "personhood" movement. In the 2012 election season, the Coalition for Secular Government won't be narrowly focused on defeating Colorado's likely "personhood" amendment: we plan to work against "personhood" measures on the ballot in other states, as well as against the "personhood" movement and for abortion rights more broadly. Any attempt to estimate what percentage of our spending concerns Colorado's ballot measure would be arbitrary. Hence, I'll have to register and file reports as an issue committee, even if only as self-defense. I don't see any way to apply the "major purpose" criterion objectively in a case like ours, where any work concerning the ballot measure is part and parcel of a much larger and broader advocacy effort. Nonetheless, I support the rule change. The current language can be interpreted any which way, and the proposed definition of a "major purpose" would clarify the criterion for many groups.

(2) Privacy for Contributors Worried about Safety

By the current rules, reports must include personal information about contributors, such as names and addresses (if the contribution is $20 or more) and occupations and employers (if the contribution is $100 or more). That information is then published on the web for anyone to see. That has been of particular concern for me, given the harassment and even violence perpetrated by some anti-abortion activists against abortion rights supporters.

Proposed Rule 20 would permit people who fear for their own or their family's safety due to information disclosed on any campaign finance report to request that such information be redacted. That's definitely an improvement over the current rules, for the change would permit people to donate without fearing that they risk life and limb in so doing.

Once again, however, I worry that the rule change is too modest, meaning that "safety" is too high a bar. People have a variety of perfectly valid reasons for wishing to contribute to causes anonymously, such as wishing to avoid unpleasant conflicts with co-workers, clients, or neighbors over politics. A person with unpopular opinions should not be forced by law to risk ostracism to support a political cause. Also, I regret that this option for privacy requires more paperwork for what ought to be protected as a right--namely, the right to speak anonymously, and, by extension, the right to enable others to speak for you while remaining anonymous.

(3) Penalties and Waivers

Under the current rules, failures to comply with the campaign finance rules can incur fines of up to $50 per day per violation, without limit. Fines have often grown far beyond a group's ability to pay. According to the 2010 manual, the Secretary of State's office grants waivers and reductions of fines at their discretion using the vague "good cause" standard. That makes the process ripe for abuse, including partisan favoritism and other forms of bias.

As far as I understand, proposed Rule 18 would establish clear standards for penalties and waivers. Waivers would be granted for specified good causes, penalties would start small then increase with successive offenses, penalties would be limited based on the resources of the group, and mistakes would be penalized far less than willful failures to comply. Also, total penalties would be limited to $50 per day per report for 180 days, i.e. $9000 per report.

These changes are hugely important, in my opinion. The possibility of incurring hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines for failing to comply with a mess of confusing campaign finance regulations should terrify any sane person. More than anything else, the current possibility of ridiculously large fines, totally disconnected from any intentional wrongdoing and out of proportion to the group's ability to pay, silences political speech in Colorado. The current rules, in fact, make election speech into a privilege of the wealthy, for only they can afford to pay the current fines. That's terribly unjust: the poor should have just as much right to speak as the rich. That's why I'd recommend limiting the fines even further.

(4) Aggregating Contributions and Expenditures

Now, I turn to my sole major objection to the proposed rule changes--and it's significant. By the current rules, contributions of $20 or more must be itemized, including the name and address of the contributor. The rules don't say any more than that, and hence, a person can give multiple donations of less than $20, and those donations are never itemized. The same applies to expenditures.

Rule 10.1 changes that policy: if the total contribution from a given source for a given reporting period is greater than $20, then it must be itemized on the report, even if the individual contributions by that source are always less than $20. (The same does not apply to the $100 threshold for occupation and employer, however.) Also, any contribution from an LLC must be itemized, regardless of size. Rule 10.2 does the same for expenditures: for each reporting period, expenditures to the same source must be aggregated, then itemized if over $20.

I'm partly sympathetic to the goal of this rule change. The current rules are unclear, and to allow many donations under $20 from the same source without itemization seems like a "loophole" that should be closed. However, to close this "loophole" entails dramatically increasing the burdens imposed on issue committees, such as myself. How so?

Under the current rules, I need only collect personal data about a contributor if he contributes $20 or more. That's a ridiculously low threshold, but at least it's a bright line for data collection. Under the new rule, however, I'd have to collect personal data from every contributor, even from someone who just gives me a $1 bill. Why? That person might give me twenty such bills over the course of the reporting period, and in case that happens, I need to identify all donations from that person in my records, add them up for the reporting period, and then itemize them in my report if they total $20 or more. At that point, I might as well just itemize every contribution (and every expenditure too), whatever the amount, just to be on the safe side. Plus, I'd have to inquire with every contributor to ensure that the money doesn't come from an LLC, for if so, I'd have to flag that in my records to report it, regardless of its size.

The burden imposed by this rule change would be enormous for many issue committees. Contributors would be burdened too, as they'd be obliged to give their name and address with every contribution. That information would likely become part of the public record in any lawsuit. In effect, this rule change would prohibit even small anonymous contributions, and that might deter many people from contributing any dollar amount. Moreover, the unscrupulous political opponents of an issue committee could easily abuse this new rule. A person could make a few small contributions to an opponent over the course of a reporting period, some in cash or otherwise anonymously, in the hope of entrapping the group in a campaign finance violation. And then, if his name and address wasn't listed on the report, he could sue.

For these reasons, I adamantly oppose this rule change. The new rule seems easy, simple, and fair in the abstract. Yet in practice, it would impose a major burden on issue committees and become fodder for partisan abuse. I urge you to reconsider this change.

Summary

In summary, I support most of the proposed changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules. The changes would make the rules less confusing, less onerous, and less risky. That's good for free speech and good for elections. However, our ultimate goal must be fully free speech in our elections--and that requires the elimination of all campaign finance laws. Mandatory disclosures do not make elections transparent: they only silence people, particularly ordinary citizens seeking to speak their minds.

Contact Information

Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
diana@dianahsieh.com

Coalition for Secular Government
http://www.SecularGovernment.us
P.O. Box 851
Sedalia, CO 80135

Links

Coalition for Secular Government

Coalition for Secular Government on Amendment 48 (2008)

Coalition for Secular Government on Amendment 62 (2010)

Addendum: My Experience with Colorado's Campaign Finance Laws

The following testimony was submitted for the May 3, 2011 hearing concerning raising the reporting threshold for issue committees.

My name is Diana Hsieh. I'm an ordinary citizen, albeit with a Ph.D in philosophy. I earn my living my writing and speaking on applying ethical principles to daily life. I'm not a political activist by trade. I have strong views on politics, but I'm not terribly interested in engaging in the rough and tumble of politics.

On occasion, however, I jump into the fray, usually because I care about some issue so deeply that I just can't stand to remain silent. That's almost always some issue local to Colorado. That happened in 2008, with Amendment 48, then again in 2010 with Amendment 62. Those were the "personhood" amendments, and I opposed them vehemently.

Here, I wish to recount how the existing campaign finance rules impaired my ability and willingness to speak against those amendments. Then I will explain why the proposed revisions will have the very same chilling effects on the speech of ordinary citizens like me. Finally, I will suggest changes to the current system that would substantially protect freedom of speech within the constraints of Colorado's constitution.

In 2008, Ari Armstrong and I wrote and published an 18-page policy paper against Amendment 48. We didn't merely want to oppose the advocates of "personhood," we also wanted to offer an alternative to the major pro-choice coalition, which we regarded as compromising on the moral issues. They didn't speak for us; we wanted to speak for ourselves.

Ari and I published that 2008 policy paper under the auspices of the "Coalition for Secular Government." That's a nonprofit corporation registered in Colorado, but really, that's just me and a blog. The Coalition for Secular Government didn't solicit or accept donations, and I paid for its few expenses personally. Consistent with that, Ari and I wrote the paper without any compensation whatsoever: it was purely a volunteer effort. After we completed the paper, I spent a few hundred dollars of my own money to print and mail copies of the paper to media and activists in Colorado.

At the time, I didn't imagine that these activities would be subject to any campaign regulations. After all, I was just exercising my right to speak freely on an issue that I cared deeply about--or so I thought. However, just to be sure, I checked the web site of Colorado's Secretary of State. I found nothing relevant to my activities, so I thought I was in the clear.

However, I was very wrong in that. A friend knowledgeable about Colorado's campaign finance laws told me about the regulations for "issue groups." So I went back to the web site of Colorado's Secretary of State, searching for information. Even once I knew what to look for, it took me over an hour to find the relevant regulations. Even after I read them again and again, I was still quite confused about how to comply with the law.

More importantly, I was appalled that my home state forbade me from speaking freely on an ballot issue that I cared deeply about--even just to spend a few hundred dollars of my own money promoting a paper that I wrote with a friend. Even worse, I could be subject to hefty fines for failing to comply with laws that I could neither find by diligent searching, nor understand by careful reading.

In addition, I found complying with the regulations--entering store names, addresses, and amounts for my few purchases of photocopies, envelopes, labels, and stamps--to be so onerous that, after filing my first report, I swore that I'd not promote the paper in any way that required money thereafter. Hence, the burdens of complying with the law -- even just to spend a few hundred dollars -- were sufficient to silence me, in part.

The same problems arose in 2010 when Ari Armstrong and I wanted to significantly revise and expand our paper for Amendment 62. Instead working for weeks on the new paper for free, we used a new business model that I'd developed in the meantime to solicit pledges to fund the project. People who supported our work could pledge to fund it in any amount they chose. If $2000 or more was pledged in total, we would update and expand the policy paper. People would only pay their pledges if we completed the work by the deadline. Much to our delight, we received 63 pledges, ranging from $4 to $300, for a total of $2795. These contributors agreed with our position, and they wanted us to speak for them in defense of abortion rights.

Ari and I were enthused and motivated by these pledges. They were concrete proof that we weren't alone: other people cared about what we were doing and supported us with their own hard-earned dollars. Plus, we were very grateful to be able to pay ourselves for the many hours of work required to revise, publish, and promote the new paper. With these funds, we could also buy Facebook ads to promote the paper.

Alas, my enthusiasm wore off quickly when I remembered the reporting requirements for "issue committees." Once again, I had trouble finding the rules: I had to call the office of the Secretary of State to be pointed to their location on the web site. When I realized that I'd have to report the names and addresses of most of our contributors, I was deeply distraught. That reporting of personal information was required for any contribution of $20 or more. For contributions of $100 or more, I had to report the person's employer and its address too.

I was upset because such reporting violated the privacy of my contributors. As part of their right to free speech, people should be able to speak anonymously--or fund the speech of others anonymously. These campaign finance regulations forbid that for any contribution of $20 or above, and that's wrong. Voters do not have a right to know the sources of funding for other people's political speech, any more than your neighbor has a right to know what you got for your birthday or what you buy at the bookstore.

Moreover, I feared serious harm might come to my contributors from this invasion of their privacy. Due to the furor over abortion in some quarters, the publication of personal information about my contributors made them easy targets for harassment or even violence by anti-abortion activists. Would you be willing to risk your life or your job in order to donate $25, $50, or $100 to a political cause? That's what my contributors were asked to do, and that's not reasonable.

On a more personal level, I was disheartened by the prospect of compiling and filing the reports. I knew that process would be far more onerous this time than in 2008. It was even worse than I expected, however, for reasons that I will explain shortly.

For a while, I considered canceling the project entirely. However, I couldn't stand the thought of being silenced by these campaign finance regulations. Instead, I decided to inform every pledger of the reporting requirements, then allow them to cancel or decrease their pledges, if they wished to preserve their privacy. Most were shocked and angered that the state of Colorado required me to gather and publish their personal information in order to accept their support for my work. Some reduced their pledges to be below the $20 and $100 thresholds. Most didn't want to be silenced, so they reaffirmed their commitment to pay what they'd pledged. A few were even so angry that they increased their pledges.

Consequently, Ari and I went forward with the project, revising and expanding the paper into a robust 43-page defense of abortion rights titled "The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception." I was--and still am--extremely proud of that paper. Yet the burden imposed on me by these campaign finance regulations was almost too heavy to bear.

To comply with the law, I spent hours filling out and faxing paperwork to open bank and PayPal accounts for the Coalition for Secular Government. Then, once contributors began to pay their pledges, I had to compile and submit reports to the state every two weeks. Each report required a few hours of my time, and each was due a mere two to three business days after the close of the reporting period. To file the reports, I had to keep an extra set of books in an Excel spreadsheet, just so that I could track my contributions and expenditures in the format required for the reports. Of course, the reports for the state never quite matched my own records on the first try, so I'd have to double-check and triple-check every entry. I had to e-mail contributors for their addresses, and sometimes for places of work. Sometimes, finding the address of a business was a difficult chore: I was in a panic at 11:30 pm on the night that a report was due, desperately trying to find a physical address for Facebook. Even once I'd gathered all that information, the process of inputting it into the system--typing in address after address--was a major chore.

To add insult to injury, I was petrified of making a mistake with every report I filed. Too much was unknown to me--for example, the Facebook ads for the paper were paid for on my personal credit card, so should I report that as an expenditure when that credit card was billed, when it was paid, or when I reimbursed myself? When should I report contributions sent as checks--when I picked them up from the post office or when I deposited them in my account? If a person wrote two checks for $19, would I have to report his name and address if I received and/or deposited them on the same day? I didn't know the answers to those questions, and I couldn't afford to consult a lawyer. I could only try to be careful--and hope for the best.

However, I forgot to file my first report for a few days, due to a mess of other pressing problems in my life from a backed up septic pipe in the house to scheduled travel to the east coast. In addition, I didn't have all the information that I needed for that report, including the addresses of many contributors. On realizing my error, I was in a state of dull panic for days, worrying that the $1000 I'd earned for writing the paper--if not more from my personal funds--would vanish in a puff of $50-per-violation-per-day fines. So I begged for a waiver. That was degrading, but I was desperate, particularly because I had no idea how some unknown state employee would judge my failure to file the report on time. Much to my relief, the waiver was granted some weeks later.

Those experiences strongly discouraged me from raising and spending more money to oppose Amendment 62, as I would have done otherwise. I could have asked for contributions to fund more Facebook ads, for example, but I didn't want to have to file more reports. I was simply weary of and disgusted by the whole process.

In short, compliance with the campaign finance laws consumed hours of my life--hours that I could have spent promoting the paper, writing op-eds, working on other projects, or even just watching a movie with my husband. With every dollar contributed or expended, I risked fines that I couldn't afford to pay. I was unable to speak as a matter of right, but rather only by government permission. I felt the pressure to just give in and give up--to say nothing--very keenly.

How many other ordinary citizens decline to speak out on ballot measures due to these regulations? I can't give you numbers, but as one of those ordinary citizens, I can tell you that the chilling effect is very real.

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13 December 2011

Catholic Pedophile Hunter Was a Pedophile

By Diana Hsieh

Wow: Roman Catholic church's paedophile investigator jailed for possessing thousands of child porn images. The story is from the UK in late October. Here are the basics:

A Catholic Church child safety co-ordinator who was in charge of investigating sexual abuse allegations was jailed for 12 months today for internet peadophile offences. Christopher Jarvis, 49, a married father-of-four, investigated historic claims of child abuse, interviewing the victims when they were adults. He was responsible for child protection at 120 churches and parish community groups for nine years.
Here's what he had in his possession:
The court heard that 4,389 images were found on the laptop and memory stick. The majority, 3,721, were at Level One, the lowest level for abusive images. But there were 120 at Level Four, which includes scenes of child rape, and 12 at Level Five, which can include scenes of torture and sadism.
He didn't just possess such images, he was spreading them:
He was arrested after uploading images of pre-pubescent boys on to the Ning social networking website.
As the judge said on sentencing him:
The people who confided in you of their own misery and abuse may well themselves be shocked and horrified that the person they were speaking to was, in his personal life, downloading images of children being abused in the same way.
Unfortunately, his sentence was light, to say the least -- he spent less than a year in prison:
Jarvis was jailed for 36 weeks concurrently for each of six charges of possessing indecent images of a child and five of making an indecent image of a child plus a further 16 weeks consecutively for a single charge of distributing indecent images of children.
Best of all, this most vile of child-porn peddlers is bitter because the Catholic Church hasn't welcomed him back with open arms. That boggles the mind.

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12 December 2011

Beware of One Horrible Campaign Finance Rule Change

By Diana Hsieh

Yesterday, in reviewing the updated version of the proposed campaign finance rule changes, I noticed one horrible rule change concerning the reporting requirements that absolutely must be actively opposed at the hearing on Thursday. (See the PDF, pages 18-19.)

So... if you've not yet submitted written testimony, please make a note that you adamantly oppose the increased reporting requirements in Rules 10.1 and 10.2 in your testimony. If you've already submitted testimony -- thank you, thank you! -- but you might want to send an addendum saying that you oppose the changes in Rules 10.1 and 10.2. My apologies for not noticing this sooner, but 45 pages of legalese is not easy to digest.

To explain what Rules 10.1 and 10.2 are and why they're so bad, I need to explain the current rules. For issue committees, every contribution must be reported, but only contributions of $20 or more must be itemized, i.e. reported with the contributor's name and address. Any contribution over $100 must also include their occupation and employer. The rules don't say any more than that, and hence, a person can give you multiple donations of less than $20, and those donations are never itemized. The same applies to expenditures.

Rule 10.1 changes that: if the total contribution from a given source for a given reporting period is greater than $20, then it must be itemized on the report, even if the individual contributions by that source were always less than $20. (The same does not apply to the $100 threshold for occupation and employer, however.) Rule 10.2 does the same for expenditures.

Here's the language for contributions:

10.1.1 All contributions received of $20 or more during a reporting period shall be listed individually on the contribution and expenditure report, including names and addresses of the contributors. If a contributor gives $20 or more in the aggregate during the reporting period, the contributor must be listed individually on the report, regardless of the amount of each contribution.
Also, any contribution from an LLC must be itemized, regardless of size.

Now, I understand the goal of clarifying these rules. That's part of Scott Gessler's overall project, and I support that. I understand that this allowance of many donations under $20 from the same source without itemization seems like a "loophole" that should be closed. However, to close a "loophole" on rights-violating law means violating more rights, and that's what's going to happen here, if this rule is implemented.

Right now, an issue committee (like me, remember!) need only collect personal data about a contributor if their contribution is $20 or above. That's a ridiculously low threshold, but at least it's a bright line for data collection. With the new rule, however, I'd have to collect that personal data from everyone, even from someone who just hands me a $1 bill. After all, that person might give me 20 of those $1 bills over the course of a the reporting period, and I'd better make sure that I'm aggregating those properly in my records, so that I can report them if necessary. Plus, I'd have to inquire with every contribution to make sure that the contributor isn't an LLC, and if so, then I'd have to flag that in my records to report it, regardless of its size.

The burden imposed by this new rule on issue committees like me is huge. Moreover, it's an invasion of the privacy of contributors, who will now have to give their name and address with every contribution, and that information would likely become part of the public record with any lawsuit. Even small anonymous donations, in other words, would be impossible by this new rule.

Moreover, it doesn't require much imagination to see how this rule could be abused by slimy political opponents. Someone could make a few small contributions over the course of a reporting period, some of them with cash or otherwise anonymously. And then, when their name and address wasn't listed on the report, they could sue. Remember, "personhood" advocate Kristi Burton was dragged into court in 2008 because her group had the audacity to sell t-shirts at fairs for $25 without collecting the names and addresses or purchasers. The leftist who did it explicitly claimed that his goal was to silence them. Nothing is too slimy for these people.

So... please please please speak out against these increased reporting requirements in the proposed rule changes.

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Testify for Free Speech on December 15th

By Diana Hsieh

On Thursday, December 15th, Colorado's excellent Secretary of State Scott Gessler will hold a hearing on a slew of proposed changes to the campaign finance rules (PDF). Contrary to popular misconception, these campaign finance rules don't just apply to politicians running for office: they affect ordinary people advocating or opposing candidates, political parties, and even ballot measures. Hence, they've put a serious damper on my activism for abortion rights, as I testified at a hearing in May.

With this hearing, Gessler is making a serious attempt to make the campaign finance rules more clear, more objective, and less onerous. Of course, his powers of reform are limited by the campaign finance provisions in the Colorado constitution and by Colorado statute. Even within those limits, however, his proposed reforms are darn good. Of course, the well-funded progressive groups in Colorado vigorously oppose free speech in elections. These groups are also gunning for Gessler, not just on this issue, but also because he's trying to prevent voter fraud. Hence, it's hugely important for people concerned about free speech in Colorado's elections to support these reforms -- and to support them loudly, clearly, and publicly.

The hearing is on the morning of December 15th in Denver, from 9 am to 12 noon. If you're able to attend and speak in person, please do so! It's in the "Blue Spruce Room" of the Secretary of State's office, which is on the second floor of 1700 Broadway.

Please submit written testimony too, whether you're able to attend in person or not. That written testimony doesn't need to be lengthy or polished. You need only say that you support these rule changes because they would substantially lessen the burdens and risks imposed on people who speak out about Colorado elections. I would also recommend saying that you support fully free speech -- without any disclosures, limits, or other controls -- in elections. If you want to say more, see my analysis of the major proposed rule changes below.

Obviously, the Secretary of State's office will give more weight to Colorado residents than to residents of other states. However, if you donated to support Ari's and my 2010 policy paper on the "personhood" movement, or if you might donate for the 2012 campaign, that gives you some standing to speak against these campaign finance laws. After all, these laws don't just violate my rights, they violate the rights of my supporters. Those people contributed to my work precisely so that I could speak for them, and they were entitled to privacy in so doing.

You must submit your written testimony by the December 15th hearing via e-mail to Andrea Gyger at andrea.gyger@sos.state.co.us. (Reference "8 CCR 1505-6," and please indicate if you want your e-mail address and any other personal information submitted included in or omitted from the published version of your testimony.)

For those of you who want to say more about why you support these rule changes, let me briefly summarize four that I regard as particularly important, as best I understand them. You can also see Ari's and my talks to Liberty on the Rocks on this issue.

(1) The Definition of Issue Committees

By the current rules, any group of two or more persons qualifies as an "issue committee" if the group (1) works for or against a ballot measure as a "major purpose" and (2) spends or receives more than $200. On reaching that threshold, a group must register with the state, create a new bank account, and file reports every two weeks disclosing expenditudes and contributions over $20. Those reports must include the names and addresses for any contribution over $20, plus the occupation and employer for any contribution over $100.

That's what I've had to do to spend any money against the 2008 and 2010 "personhood" amendments, and it's a serious burden. Occasional political activists such as myself cannot hire lawyers and accountants to prepare and submit this paperwork, and doing it myself was a major source of stress, frustration, and worry. Of particular concern is that opponents will sue over minor mistakes, and the fines add up quickly. Hence, to exercise your free speech rights in an election in Colorado requires submitting small mountain of confusing paperwork, plus risking expensive lawsuits and fines. Well, that's not free speech.

The proposed rule changes would clarify and limit the groups that qualify as "issue committess" in two sensible ways.

First, the "major purpose" criterion would mean something specific, namely that more than 30% of the organization's spending concerns a ballot measure. Under the current rules, the "major purpose" criterion can be interpreted any which way, and so groups with only a minor interest in some ballot measure have to file reports to be safe rather than sorry. Under the new rules, groups can more easily know whether they qualify as issue groups or not, then act accordingly.

However, the criterion isn't perfect, as the application of the criterion isn't always crystal clear. For example, for the 2012 election, the Coalition for Secular Government won't just be concerned with Colorado's likely "personhood" amendment, but also with the national-level "personhood" movement, plus the "personhood" efforts in other states. Still, since we're based in Colorado, we will be more focused on and active in Colorado. So will the Colorado "personhood" ballot measure constitute a "major purpose" for CSG by this new standard? I just don't know the answer to that question, and I don't see how I could know.

Nonetheless, the proposed "major purpose" test would be a significant improvement, precisely because it establishes an objective test that most groups can easily apply.

Second, the threshold for reporting for issue groups is set at $5000, in keeping with the prior rule-change. Although still problematic, that threshold liberates many small groups from the onerous reporting requirements imposed on them under the $200 threshold. Unfortunately, that proposed change is pending litigation in the courts -- with the latest ruling being against the increased threshold. So in 2012, groups will have to err on the side of caution -- and hence, register and file reports once they raise or spend more than $200. Here, we can only urge the Gessler to keep fighting for the $5000 threshold in the courts.

(2) The Definition of Electioneering Communication

By the current rules, "electioneering communication" means any communication via radio, television, newspaper, billboard, or flyer that refers to a candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Any person who spends over $1000 on electioneering communication in a year must register with the state, create a new bank account, and file reports on all expentitures every two weeks. These reports must include the name, address, occupation, and employer of anyone contributing more than $250 per year.

At present, the standards for when advocacy constitutes "electioneering communication" are vague, and the stricter "magic words test" (seriously, that's what it's called) is currently being litigated in the courts.

The proposed rule changes would narrow the definition of "electioneering communication" to require "express advocacy" for a candidate. That bright line would enable political activists to know with certainty whether they must file reports or not when spending money in elections. That substantially reduces the risk of either wasting time by filing unnecessary reports or incurring files for failing to file necessary reports. In addition, the rule change would permit more people to speak freely about election politics.

(3) Penalties and Waivers

Under the current rules, failures to comply with the campaign finance rules can incur fines of up to $50 per day per violation, without limit. Fines have often grown far beyond a group's ability to pay. Waivers and reductions of these fines are granted by the Secretary of State's office, but the process and standards are unclear to regular people. That makes the whole process ripe for abuse, whether by a partisan Secretary of State or a lone member of his staff.

The proposed rule changes would establish clear standards for penalties and waivers. For example, waivers would be granted with good cause, penalties would start small but will be increased with each successive offense, and penalties would be limited based on the resources of the organization. Importantly, total penalties would be limited to $50 per day per report for 180 days, i.e. $9000 per report. That's still far too large, but it's a major improvement from the current possibility of infinitely large fines.

(4) Privacy for Contributors

By the current rules, reports must include personal information about contributors, such as names, addresses, and employers. That information is then published on the web for anyone to see. Given the harassment and even violence perpetrated by some anti-abortion activists, the publication of these records was of grave concern to me when soliciting contributions for our work against the "personhood" amendment in 2010.

The proposed rule changes would permit people who fear for their own or their family's safety due to information disclosed on any campaign finance report to request that such information be redacted. The information must be submitted, but it will be kept private. On controversial topics, that protection of privacy might enable some people to speak out who would otherwise be frightened into silence. In America, the government should not require people to risk life and limb to support the people they choose to speak for them.

Summary

These four changes to Colorado's campaign finance rules aren't the sole changes under consideration at this hearing. The proposed changes consume 45 pages of dense legalese. However, they're significant and representative: these changes would make the rules more clear, more objective, and less burdensome. Ultimately, campaign finance laws ought to be repealed wholly and completely. By mandating disclosure and setting limits on contributions, the government accomplishes nothing except interfering with our free speech rights.

In the meantime, if you live in Colorado, please testify in support of these rule changes, whether in person or just in writing. Remember, even if you live outside Colorado, you have standing to testify if you contributed to Ari's and my 2010 policy paper on the "personhood movement -- or you might do so for the 2012 election.

By speaking out in favor of these rule changes, you're not just helping the abstract cause of free speech. You're helping to ease a major burden imposed on me and other advocates of individual rights in Colorado. You're enabling us to advocate more clearly, more effectively, and more enthusiastically on ballot measures.

So once again, you can submit your wrtten testimony via e-mail to Andrea Gyger at andrea.gyger@sos.state.co.us. (Reference "8 CCR 1505-6," and please indicate if you want your e-mail address and any other personal information submitted included in or omitted from the published version of your testimony.)

Just don't forget that December 15th deadline!

Update: After writing this post, I realized that one of the proposed rule changes is really, really horrible. Go read about it here, and be sure to mention your opposition to it in your testimony.

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