Amicus Brief: $6 Million Fine for Campaign Finance Reporting Errors Violates First, Eighth Amendments

Washington's "historic" penalty is an excessive fine targeting political speech

September 9, 2019   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Alexandria, VA – The Institute for Free Speech filed an amicus brief with the Washington Supreme Court late Friday stating that a lower court erred in failing to apply constitutional scrutiny to a $6 million fine assessed for campaign finance violations. The First and Eighth Amendments do not allow such massive penalties for speakers whose only errors involve registration and reporting of perfectly legal expenditures, the brief says.

“The threat of multi-million dollar fines for technical violations will cause many groups to avoid speaking on public issues. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive fines, and that protection is especially important where those fines are directed at political speech,” said Institute for Free Speech Legal Director Allen Dickerson.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a national trade group, was fined in 2016 for reporting errors in its ballot measure advocacy. The group reported all of its contributions, and voters knew of GMA’s economic interests in opposing a ballot measure. Nevertheless, the state imposed a massive $6 million fine on GMA for failing to register and report as a political committee. The fine was later trebled to $18 million, which the state’s Attorney General hailed as “historic.”

A state court of appeals reduced the fine to the original $6 million, but did not subject this base fine to constitutional scrutiny. The Institute for Free Speech’s brief explains that this huge fine is excessive and will chill protected speech.

“Whether $6 million or $18 million, the fines here are massive – a death sentence for most groups. And groups will silence themselves, knowing that complaints by ideological opponents may result in terminal penalties,” explains the Institute’s brief. “Such fines therefore suppress ‘speech about public issues,’ which ‘commands the highest level of First Amendment protection.'”

The Institute asks the Washington Supreme Court to remand the case for consideration of First and Eighth Amendment concerns. The case is State of Washington v. Grocery Manufacturers Association.

To read the Institute’s brief, 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.

IFS Staff

IFS Staff