Another important case from the Institute for Justice shows how laws passed under the guise of disclosure and clean elections quickly become a barrier to free speech and civic engagement.
Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell are Mississippi citizens that simply want to join together and speak out in favor of Initiative 31—an effort that would provide Mississippi citizens with greater protection from eminent domain abuse. But if they spend just $200 on signs, buttons and flyers without first registering with the government and navigating a complex web of regulations, they would be subject to fines and possible criminal penalties . . .
Like many Americans, the Plaintiffs in this case—Dr. Stan O’Dell, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Vance Justice, and Alison Kinnaman—care deeply about the direction of the country, its laws, and its political leaders. For several years, the group has been meeting informally near their homes in Oxford, Mississippi to discuss political and legal issues of the day. Occasionally, they have engaged in activism, organizing rallies and passing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day . . .
One issue the Plaintiffs have discussed often is private property rights, and, specifically, the impact on property rights of the power of eminent domain. They, like many Americans, were outraged over the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, that upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development. As a result, they were quite happy when eminent domain reform made it onto the ballot this year, in the form of Initiative 31 . . .
The Plaintiffs support Initiative 31 and would like to convince their neighbors to vote for it as well. Unfortunately, they face a stumbling block that all too many Americans face when they wish to speak out about political issues—the campaign finance laws.
Most people think laws affect only those running for office. Few are aware that the laws restrict the ability of ordinary Americans to advocate for or against ballot issues. These laws impose serious burdens on First Amendment rights and can result in crushing legal costs and penalties when they are violated. The regulations in Mississippi and other states starkly illustrate how campaign finance laws strangle citizen speech.
Under Mississippi law, any time two or more people join together to spend more than $200 to support or oppose a ballot issue, they become a fully regulated political committee. At today’s prices, even a quarter-page advertisement in the local newspaper, or just a handful of signs and flyers can cost over $200.
Thus, just for trying to speak effectively, the Plaintiffs would have to register with the state, appoint a Director and Treasurer, and file monthly, annual, and other periodic reports of their activities. These reports require the Plaintiffs to keep track of every single dollar that is spent or contributed, and from whom that dollar came. If one of the Plaintiffs just drives to a copy shop to pick up flyers, the value of the gas has to be reported as a contribution.
The reports also require the Plaintiffs to keep track of a great deal of personal information about themselves and their supporters. They have to keep track of each contributor’s name, street address, occupation and employer, together with the amounts and dates of their contributions. Even individuals who wish to spend more than $200 of their own money must report their personal information and activities to the state.
To make matters worse, all the personal information they have to report is made public on the internet for all the world to see. This gives strangers—and potentially political opponents or even identity thieves—access to names, addresses, telephone numbers, occupations, employers, and political views.
Yet another area of public life where you now need to hire an attorney merely to keep yourself out of jail. Or at least from being fined. Some 24 states have laws like the one in Mississippi. Justice v. Hosemann is part of a broader IJ campaign to overturn similarly burdensome campaign finance laws around the country.