Appeals court upholds First Amendment protection for petition freedom

Oklahomans and the First Amendment won a significant legal victory as a federal appeals court struck down an Oklahoma law restricting the circulation of ballot or candidate petitions to state residents.

Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) Vice President Stephen Hoersting served as co-counsel to the plaintiff in the case, Yes on Term Limits, along with attorney Todd Graves, a partner with Graves Bartle & Marcus in Kansas City, Missouri. CCP is a nonprofit organization which advocates for First Amendment-protected rights of speech, assembly, and petition.

“The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld important constitutional rights for Oklahomans, and we applaud their decision,” said CCP Vice President Stephen Hoersting. “The Center for Competitive Politics now calls upon Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmonson to do the right thing and stop his prosecutions of those who engaged in this First Amendment-protected political activity.”

“The federal appeals court’s Thursday ruling upholds an important free speech principle and joins other federal courts in upholding citizens’ First Amendment right to petition their government without threat of political prosecution,” Graves said.

The appellate court ruled that the state’s ban on nonresident circulators violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections as well as the Fourteenth Amendment. The court wrote that circulation petitions is “core political speech” and deserves the highest level of First Amendment protection. The appellate court also found that the record did not support the state’s contention that nonresident circulators engage in fraud.

“Oklahoma has failed to prove that banning all nonresident circulators is a narrowly tailored means of meeting its compelling interest,” the ruling states. “Oklahoma has also failed to prove the ineffectiveness of plausible alternatives to the blanket ban on nonresidents.”

Oklahoma has one of the most restrictive ballot initiative laws in the country, barring activists not planning permanent residency from exercising their political speech rights by circulating petitions. In Oct. 2007 Virginia activist Paul Jacob and two others were indicted for conspiracy to defraud the state for hiring out-of-state petitioners to collect signatures to put a taxpayers’ bill of rights proposal on the ballot. The maximum penalty for their alleged crime of exercising their political speech rights is a fine up to $25,000 and ten years in prison.

“This was a victory for residents of the Sooner State, who have had their right to petition the government for a redress of grievances affirmed by the 10th Circuit’s decision,” Hoersting said.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.