The Old Man in the Mountain would be scowling—if he still loomed over Cannon Mountain—at an attempt by the New Hampshire legislature to stifle political speech in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
HB 1459, an act originally sponsored by state Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), would require corporations, partnerships, and non-profits to register with the Secretary of State’s office within 48 hours of launching a political advertisement-regardless of whether the advocacy is political or issue-based in nature. In its original form, the bill would have required non-profits to disclose their donors and corporations to disclose the maximum amount that the corporation would spend on political activity.
In effect, the New Hampshire legislature is attempting to execute a Stone Cold Stunner on all who wish to speak out in New Hampshire elections.
A conference committee announced a deal amending the bill’s original language May 27. Under the terms of the amendment, which was haphazardly crafted by Democratic Party attorney and previous chairman of the state Democratic Party Kathy Sullivan, non-profits would no longer have to disclose their donors and corporations would not be required to disclose the maximum amount to be spent on political action, even though they would still be required to obtain approval from their Board of Directors. However, corporations, LLCs, and partnerships who seek to spend $10,000 in a single election cycle would still be subject to the stringent, speech-stifling requirements of this bill. A particularly concerning outcome of the deal is the agreement that a candidate involved in any political ad from an outside group is allowed to file suit against the creator, regardless of whether the Attorney General finds evidence of a violation.
The amendment passed the Senate floor in a party line vote, 14-10.
Opposition to this attack on free speech has been vocal and bipartisan. Rep. Jim Splaine (D) was actually removed from the conference committee for vocally opposing the act: “I would be embarrassed to say I am a member of the Democratic Party today. I don’t think most Democrats support this attack, this gag rule on free speech.”
Splaine is not alone. His sentiment has been echoed by numerous non-profit and advocacy groups from both ends of the political spectrum. The New Hampshire ACLU has called the bill a “gross violation of the legislative process” and called on both parties to reject this “unconstitutional attack on free speech” while the state’s Republican Party criticizes the proposal’s last-minute crafting as preventing the bill from being properly vetted. Left-leaning columnist Susan Bruce of bluehampshire.com warns that non-profits will be “unfairly burdened” by the legislation. Both the Cornerstone Policy Research and Planned Parenthood New England warn of its speech-chilling effects too.
Splaine articulates the stakes better than anyone: “It’s chilling, even frightening, that some people might have to be concerned that if they participate in the democratic process, that they can be exposed, challenged, intimidated or have to go to court because the law questions their involvement.”
For an overview of the legislation, New Hampshire Watchdog has more information here.