Free speech victory in Florida

May 26, 2009   •  By Jeff Patch
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Supporters of the First Amendment won an important victory last Friday when a federal district court in Florida struck down a restrictive state law that required any and all groups that dare to refer to a political candidate or issue  — even when they don’t “expressly advocate” election or defeat — to register with the government as “electioneering communications organizations.” In other words, the federal district judge ensured that constitutionally protected issue advocacy remains alive and well in Florida.

A coalition of four Florida groups — represented by the Institute for Justice, a frequent CCP ally — initially won a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law in October 2008. CCP blogged about the issue then, especially noting the favorable comments from the judge in the case. IJ’s release is here.

IJ represented the Broward Coalition of Condominiums, Homeowners Associations and Community Organizations, the University of Florida College Libertarians and the National Taxpayers Union, as well as the leaders of each organization in their quest to speak to their members and the public without submitting to onerous government regulations.

Under Florida’s “electioneering communications” law — the broadest regulation of political speech anywhere in the country — any group that mentions a candidate or a ballot issue in a newsletter or on a website would have had to register with the government and report its spending and donors, even those who never intended their gift to go towards political speech. Additionally, if the law stood, groups that didn’t comply would have faced fines and possible jail time. Individuals would have also been subject to burdensome reporting requirements if they spent more than $100 on political speech.

Of course such a law is unconstitutional on its very face, and the federal judge made that official in his ruling on Friday. In the summary judgment decision, Judge Stephan Mickle strongly defended the right to free political speech in explaining his decision to junk the bad law.

“While it is true that the legislature has the power the regulate elections, it does not have the power to regulate purely political discussions about elections,” Mickle wrote. “Furthermore, this legislation cannot be justified by the government’s interest in preventing political corruption because the communication that is swept up in this legislation is issue advocacy speech, pure political speech.”


Jeff Patch

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