Campaign Organizers Sue California Over AB 5’s Discrimination Against Political Speech

Golden State labor law violates the First Amendment, lawsuit argues

June 24, 2021   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Los Angeles, CA – A California nonprofit, a political committee, and a company that provides door-knocking and signature gathering services late yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court saying that California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5) discriminates against political speech. The lawsuit argues that AB 5 violates the First Amendment because independent contractors, who are permitted to work as direct sales salespersons and newspaper carriers, are prohibited from performing similar work for campaigns and advocacy groups.

“California allows independent contractors to ask passersby to sign a credit card application, but not a ballot measure petition. It allows them to go door-to-door selling home goods, but not promoting candidates. It allows them to drop off newspapers, but not campaign literature,” said Institute for Free Speech Vice President for Litigation Alan Gura. “The First Amendment prohibits discrimination against speech based on its content, and that’s exactly what’s happening here.”

The passage of AB 5, which effectively bars campaigns from hiring canvassers as independent contractors, has forced the plaintiffs to cease their longstanding practice of hiring contractors to collect signatures for ballot petitions and engage California voters in discussion. The costs of hiring canvassers as employees, as required by California’s new law, makes them unaffordable to many campaigns.

The state has provided exemptions, however, allowing the hiring of independent contractors for virtually identical work in newspaper delivery and direct sales. The only distinguishing feature between these workers and those hired by the plaintiffs is the content of the speech they are paid to promote. Content-based regulations of speech are presumptively unconstitutional under the First Amendment, the lawsuit explains. Moreover, the government cannot give preferential treatment to commercial speech over political or campaign speech.

“California lacks a compelling state interest in classifying signature gatherers differently from direct sales salespersons, newspaper distributors, and newspaper carriers, based on the content of their speech,” reads the complaint.

The plaintiffs are Mobilize the Message, LLC, a Florida-based company that provides signature-gathering and door-knocking services to campaigns across the country, including in California; Moving Oxnard Forward, Inc., a California nonprofit organization that works to create and enact ballot measures in Oxnard, California; and the Starr Coalition for Moving Oxnard Forward, a related political committee.

“The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak to our neighbors about politics, to share with them important information about campaigns, and to work together to directly effect change at the ballot box,” said Aaron Starr, Founder and President of Moving Oxnard Forward. “California is wrong in holding this form of speech is less protected than speech related to selling consumer products. We hope the courts will agree.”

“In the new economy, many seeking careers in politics and grassroots are hungry for a fulfilling opportunity. Our democratic process needs these people to engage voters and spread the word about important campaigns and issues. It’s a shame that California erects unconstitutional barriers to earning a living this way, depriving campaigns of needed help and depriving the voters of information,” said Justin Greiss, Chief Operating Officer of Mobilize the Message, LLC.

Unable to hire canvassers as employees and fearful of fines from the state for “misclassifying” them as independent contractors, the groups must now cease canvassing activity or rely solely on volunteers.

The case is Mobilize the Message, LLC v. Bonta in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. To read the complaint, 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

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