Overland Park Nonprofit Sues Kansas to Speak Freely

Institute for Free Speech attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Fresh Vision OP to challenge laws that threaten jail time for exercising political speech rights

June 24, 2024   •  By IFS Staff   •    •  
Default Article

Overland Park, KS — The typical activities of a traditional grassroots group of concerned citizens shouldn’t be against the law.

Yet, Kansas’s current complex campaign finance regime resulted in an intrusive, controversial, and expensive investigation of Overland Park nonprofit Fresh Vision OP for doing just that. The probe and threat of criminal penalties after the group endorsed a mayoral candidate caused the group to suspend its work, showing how the law chills traditional grassroots activity.

Attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech and local counsel Josh Ney filed a federal lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas to protect Fresh Vision OP’s right to speak without fear of prosecution. Fresh Vision is a grassroots nonprofit promoting responsible policies in Overland Park.

Overland Park residents founded Fresh Vision to advocate for policies that would preserve the quality of life in their community, such as responsible land development, support for first responders, and public safety. The group’s activities included attending community events, distributing educational materials, and occasionally endorsing local candidates who shared its values.

The lawsuit challenges two provisions of Kansas law. The first is the definition of “political committee.” State law improperly extends this definition to groups for whom urging voters to elect a candidate is only an incidental purpose of its activities rather than the major purpose of the group.

The second is the state’s extremely low $100 threshold for triggering burdensome reporting requirements, which includes the threat of jail time for failure to comply. Even a small mailing or a few yard signs could easily surpass the $100 threshold. That would effectively transform a small group of citizens into a political action committee as far as the state is concerned.

The state proved dogged in enforcing these problematic laws. After Fresh Vision endorsed a candidate for mayor, Kansas officials threatened the group and its officers with tens of thousands of dollars in fines and even imprisonment. The state claimed that Fresh Vision was required to register as a political committee and comply with a host of onerous regulations and reporting requirements that would have threatened its existence.

Fearing further enforcement actions, Fresh Vision suspended its activities. Now, the group wants to resume its community advocacy but fears that doing so will trigger a new threat of hefty fines and jail time and force the disclosure of its donors’ identities.

Fresh Vision merely wishes to exercise its right to speak out about local issues that affect the Overland Park community and occasionally support the election or defeat of a candidate. Kansas’ current campaign finance laws have made that too risky for the group.

“The First Amendment will not allow bureaucrats to use arcane regulations to punish regular citizens who simply want to voice their concerns about development, water use, and other local issues,” said Institute for Free Speech Senior Attorney Charles “Chip” Miller. “Norman Rockwell’s classic paintings beautifully captured how everyday Americans engage their local governments. We will make sure that picture never changes.”

“Many of the laws enforced by the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission are long overdue for constitutional review. The Constitution forbids vague laws that regulate speech and punish violations,” explained Josh Ney, partner with Kriegshauser Ney Law Group and co-counsel for plaintiffs. “I note that a bipartisan legislative interim committee recently found that many of Kansas’s campaign finance statutes were vague, and I hope adding constitutional principles into the conversation can encourage the legislature to write clear campaign finance laws that respect the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the challenged laws unconstitutional and block their enforcement. Fresh Vision also seeks a temporary restraining order to allow the group to resume its advocacy activities while the case proceeds.

To read the complaint in the lawsuit, Fresh Vision OP, Inc., et al. v. Skoglund, et al., click here. To read more about the case, please see our case page here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech promotes and defends the political speech rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government guaranteed by the First Amendment.

IFS Staff

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap