By John Kennedy
The News Service Of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 18, 2010…A federal court was asked Monday to block the state’s campaign finance laws from being applied to four activists opposing a Florida ballot measure – a move the judge acknowledged would add “a little bit of chaos” two weeks before Election Day.
The conservative Institute for Justice urged U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle to throw out the finance laws governing ballot measures, with the challenge centered on Florida’s requirement that two or more people who want to spend more than $500 on either side of a ballot issue must form as a political committee regulated by the state.
The four activists, from the Sarasota area, have said they are seeking to air their own radio ads opposing Amendment 4, the November ballot measures that would put land-use plan changes before voters. Their lawsuit said they decided to challenge the law after learning they would have to form a regulated political committee to run such spots.
Paul Sherman, an institute attorney, told Hinkle the standard was unconstitutional in wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. That decision said limits could not be placed on independent campaign expenditures made by corporations and associations, although political committees can remain regulated by states.
“The people in this case face the same regulations the corporations did,” Sherman told Hinkle. “But they have a First Amendment right to speak.”
The existing requirements, Sherman added, “are burdensome as a point of law.”
But Assistant Attorney General Jon Glogau, representing Florida Secretary of State Dawn Roberts, the defendant in the legal challenge, said the Citizens United ruling did not lift financial disclosure requirements or cloud the future of political action committees. Glogau said the activists involved in the lawsuit could complete a two-page state form and become a political committee.
“It’s just not a burden at all,” Glogau told Hinkle.
For his part, Hinkle said he was suspect of the timing of the lawsuit, while openly questioning Sherman’s interpretation of the Citizens United ruling. Along with acknowledging the chaos that could be created by lifting the campaign finance standard, Hinkle said it seemed the state had a compelling interest to let voters know who is financing campaign advertising.
Hinkle also said he couldn’t guarantee a ruling in the case before the Nov. 2 election.
“I can move as fast as anybody,” he said. “But all I can say is I’ll do the best I can.”
The institute last year successfully challenged Florida’s law governing “electioneering communication organizations,” which made it illegal for political spending committees to mention a candidate or ballot issue without registering with the state. The lawsuit effectively deregulated these free-spending, so-called 527 groups, although legislators earlier this year revised and re-enacted many of the earlier standards.
But that new law also is under fire from the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel and James Madison Center for Free Speech, which in late September filed a federal lawsuit in Gainesville on behalf of the National Organization for Marriage. Similar to the institute’s challenge, the lawsuit seeks to overturn the new ECO law because it imposes free speech burdens.
The institute’s lawsuit grew out of a teleconference the activists took part in earlier this fall that was coordinated by FreedomWorks, the political action committee led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey which has helped fuel the Tea Party movement nationwide.
FreedomWorks also has endorsed Republican Rick Scott in Florida’s governor’s race.
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