Party censors in Iowa

Top officials at Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties are responding to two instances of political speech in remarkably similar ways — threatening litigation, government investigations and other intimidation tactics.

The first case involves a flyer critical of former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a rumored potential candidate for governor in 2010.

Jeff Boeyink, the Republican Party of Iowa’s executive director, told state media he plans to ask the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to investigate the organization supposedly behind the flyer. Iowa has relatively strict independent expenditure filing guidelines, requiring groups to submit to government regulation — which usually requires retaining a lawyer — if they spend over $100 on a direct mailing, brochure or ad.

It’s not clear the flyer would fall under such regulation, though, as it doesn’t “expressly advocate” the “nomination, election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” For one thing, Branstad is not yet a candidate, and the flyer — while harshly critical of the former governor — does not expressly advocate for his defeat by using indicator words like “vote against.” The closest it comes is the last line: “Tell Terry that he needs to remain FORMER Governor Branstad-for Iowa’s sake.”

Would Boeyink have requested that the government investigate the authors of the Federalist Papers during America’s nascent years?* The authors, though a bit more erudite than “Iowans For Truth and Honest Government,” wrote under the pen name “Publius.” Since then, anonymous speech has been upheld by the Supreme Court as a legitimate contribution to political expression.

The second case involves Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Michael Kiernan, who threatened Republican gubernatorial candidate Christian Fong with legal action if he doesn’t remove an ad Kiernan deemed “materially false and misleading.”

The ad criticizes Democratic Gov. Chet Culver for borrowing nearly a billion dollars to pay the state’s bills. Kiernan is crying foul because he says the money is for a public works program called I-JOBS — not typical budget expenditures.

Ultimately, the dispute is a matter of opinion, and candidates are free to boil down complicated issues in 30 and 60 second radio and TV ads. Voters and the media should be the arbiters of campaign ads — not political lawyers or government bodies.

Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, should be a model marketplace for free political expression. Leaders in Iowa’s Republican and Democratic parties should step back and let that process unfold instead of seeking to censor Iowans exercising their First Amendment rights.

* NOTE: This post has been updated for clarity.

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