october 21, 2015

Arizona Citizens May Now Speak Freely About Elections

Court protects First Amendment rights from unconstitutional political committee laws Bookmark and Share

PHOENIXFour years after it began, a case brought by the Institute for Justice (IJ) that imposed critical limits on government power to regulate political speech has come to an end. On October 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed, by agreement of the parties, an appeal in Galassini v. Town of Fountain Hills. In this case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled a key component of Arizona’s campaign finance law unconstitutional. Instead of continuing to defend an indefensible law on appeal, the State of Arizona amended it and stopped enforcement of it. The dismissal means that hundreds of people and groups who spoke in the 2014 elections (or elections prior) are protected from potential litigation.

In October 2011, Fountain Hills resident Dina Galassini sent an email to 23 of her friends and neighbors inviting them to join her in two protests against a local bond proposal by bringing homemade signs and waving them at passing cars. “Little did she realize,” as District Court Judge James A. Teilborg noted, “that she was about to feel the heavy hand of government in a way that she never imagined.”

Ms. Galassini’s email found its way to election officials in Fountain Hills, who told her that Arizona law prohibited her from organizing her protest or speaking unless she first registered with the government as a “political committee.” And just to speak about the bond, she had to abide by the numerous legal requirements imposed on “political committees.”

“I was stunned to learn that I needed to register with the government just to talk to people in my community about the bond,” Galassini said. “All I could think was, ‘How can this be allowed under our First Amendment?’”

Ms. Galassini joined with IJ, which quickly won her right to hold a protest during the 2011 election. But the case continued, focusing on Ms. Galassini’s ability to do the same in the future. Throughout the case, lawyers and election officials for the state and the town—and even the judge—struggled to explain Arizona’s definition of “political committee.” This confusion was not surprising: Multiple courts had found over the last twenty years that Arizona’s campaign finance laws are difficult to understand, especially when applied to small, grassroots speakers like Ms. Galassini. The definition of “political committee” was a single sentence of 183 words—many of them highly technical jargon—with numerous and confusing clauses and sub-clauses.

In September 2013, Judge Teilborg ruled that Arizona’s definition of “political committee” was unconstitutionally vague and that regulations on small “political committees” are unconstitutionally burdensome. Because the definition of “political committee” was unconstitutional, laws that apply to “political committees”—most of Arizona’s campaign finance laws—could not be constitutionally enforced. That ruling was finalized and put into effect in December 2014.

The State of Arizona appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. But while the appeal was pending, it adopted a new definition of political committee.  The State also began dismissing potentially hundreds of pending enforcement actions and investigations brought under the old definition. The State then agreed to dismiss the appeal.  Dismissal leaves Judge Teilborg’s ruling in place, which protects people and groups who spoke in the 2014 or earlier elections from potential litigation.

“In this country all you should need to speak about politics is an opinion, but thanks to campaign finance laws, even the smallest groups of friends and neighbors need lawyers and accountants too,” said IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment does not allow laws that chill speech through vague requirements and heavy administrative burdens. It is unfortunate that Arizona persisted in enforcing such laws for so long.”

Ms. Galassini’s case also prompted some lawmakers to take a closer look at Arizona’s campaign finance law. The Secretary of State, for example, has proposed major revisions of the laws in an effort to simplify and clarify Arizona’s complex, perpetually growing body of law on the subject.

“As campaign finance regulations have proliferated, lawmakers and courts across the country have to wrestle with laws like these,” said Diana Simpson, an attorney with IJ. “The First Amendment’s protection of free speech and association is hollow unless courts meaningfully engage with the real-world effects of these laws. Unfortunately, some courts are still failing their basic responsibility to defend the free speech rights of ordinary Americans.”

Ms. Galassini added: “I am glad my case demonstrated that these laws are unconstitutional and that I was able to protect other citizens from these abusive and vague laws that were created to chill their speech.”

Galassini is a part of the IJ’s Citizen Speech Initiative, a national effort to restore full protection to free political speech. Next month, IJ will be asking the United States Supreme Court to take a nearly identical case from Mississippi, Justice v. Hosemann, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit approved forcing a handful of friends and neighbors who just wanted to pool their money and talk about eminent domain reform to become a heavily regulated political committee.

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