Colorado closes free speech case, changes law, pays $220K in attorney’s fees

April 7, 2017   •  By IFS Staff   •    •  
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Alexandria, VA – Attorneys for Colorado and the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) filed a notice in federal court today ending a free speech case that began more than four years ago. It’s the final chapter in a federal lawsuit that saw Colorado’s ballot issue disclosure law partially invalidated under the First Amendment, and forced Colorado to pay $220,000 to cover the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.

“We are pleased the court vindicated our client’s First Amendment rights,” said CCP President David Keating. “The attorney’s fees send a message to lawmakers across the country that there is also a financial cost to violating free speech rights. We commend the Governor and state lawmakers for fixing the unconstitutional law last year. But that law expires two years from now, and we hope they will remember to renew it.”

The case, Coalition for Secular Government (CSG) v. Williams, involved a two-person group that published papers that in small part discussed a Colorado ballot measure. CSG planned to raise less than $3,500 to update and distribute a public policy paper online. But Colorado law forced CSG to register as an issue committee and file reports like those required for political action committees.

“It’s frustrating that the law made even modest efforts to talk about policies nearly impossible,” said CSG President Diana Brickell. “We are a small organization, and the law forced us to file complex reports or face thousands in fines and penalties. We are ecstatic that CCP helped secure our constitutional rights.”

The Colorado Supreme Court first decided that small groups had to seek relief from the law on a case-by-case basis. A federal district court later ruled the law unconstitutional for groups raising or spending less than $3,500. Explaining the reversal, Senior District Judge John Kane wrote that “the internet is the new soapbox; it is the new town square. CSG’s ‘personhood’ paper is Tom Paine’s pamphlet. It is the quintessence of political speech…. By setting in stone the uncertainty that precipitated this litigation in the first place, the [Supreme] Court’s interpretation chills robust discussion at the very core of our electoral process.”

Judge Kane also warned that if Colorado did not bring its laws into conformance with the First Amendment, he would award legal fees “every time a group, like CSG … has to sue to vindicate its First Amendment rights.” His words proved prophetic; this week, Colorado paid $220,000 to settle CSG’s attorney’s fees.

In March 2016, a federal appeals court unanimously affirmed the lower court’s ruling. “The informational interest in the Coalition’s disclosures is far outweighed by the substantial and serious burdens of the required disclosures,” wrote Judge Gregory A. Phillips for the three-judge panel. “Simply put, Colorado’s issue-committee regulatory framework remains too burdensome for small-scale issue committees like the Coalition.”

“The burdens imposed by Colorado’s issue committee regulations are clearly too much for small citizen groups to bear,” said CCP Legal Director Allen Dickerson, who represented CSG in the litigation. “These laws are complex and typically written with multi-million dollar political organizations in mind. Enforcing them against small groups violates the First Amendment.”

After the court rulings, the state passed a new law to fix the defect identified by the courts. Now groups like CSG only need to file one short form until they spend more than $5,000.

That law expires on June 30, 2019. To keep the law in compliance with the court rulings, the state must renew the law or pass another one that complies with the First Amendment by then.

To learn more about the case, click here.

IFS Staff

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