Connecticut Legislators Challenge Censorship of Campaign Ads

Joe Markley and Rob Sampson sue the State Elections Enforcement Commission after being fined for discussing the governor’s policies in mailers

Alexandria, VA – For voters, what information about legislative candidates could be more important than knowing their views on the governor’s key policies? Yet the state of Connecticut has fined two General Assembly members simply for mentioning the governor in their campaign ads. Now they are suing the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) for violating their First Amendment rights, with the help of the Institute for Free Speech.

“Just as candidates for Congress must be able to discuss the president, candidates for state legislature must be able to discuss the governor. Yet Connecticut law prevents candidates for the General Assembly from criticizing the governor’s policies in ads unless they first secure the approval and funding of one of the governor’s opponents. This policy effectively bans candidates from speaking to voters about one of the most important responsibilities of the office they seek to hold – checking the power of the executive,” said Institute for Free Speech Legal Director Allen Dickerson.

Joe Markley, a state senator, and Rob Sampson, a state representative, were ensnared by the law after they decided to split the costs on a series of standard campaign mailers highlighting their achievements in office. The mailers promoted Markley and Sampson as opponents of Governor Dannel Malloy’s policies on taxes and government spending. Two additional ads by Sampson also mentioned Malloy’s policies.

Legislative candidates commonly campaign as supporters or opponents of their state’s governor, whose policies and record are better known by voters. However, Sampson’s opponent in the election filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission alleging that these ads violated state campaign finance laws. The SEEC agreed.

By criticizing the governor’s record, the SEEC argued that Markley and Sampson made an illegal expenditure on behalf of the governor’s opponent. The SEEC ordered Sampson to pay a $5,000 fine and ordered Markley to pay a $2,000 fine. In order for the ads to be legal, the SEEC believes the governor’s opponent would have had to approve and share the costs of the ads.

Markley and Sampson are represented by the Institute for Free Speech and Connecticut attorney Michael Cronin. They are asking a Connecticut court to dismiss the fines and declare the law unconstitutional. Requiring legislative candidates to get permission and funding from a gubernatorial candidate in order to discuss the governor in campaign ads violates the First Amendment. If left intact, the law “will harm future candidates by restricting or chilling free political speech, and association,” the Institute’s brief notes.

The case, Joe Markley & Rob Sampson v. State Elections Enforcement Commission, is before the Superior Court of the Judicial District of New Britain. To read the Institute’s brief, click here. To read the SEEC’s Proposed Final Decision, click here. To read more about the case, click here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

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