Victory: Florida Elections Commission Pays $175k in Attorney’s Fees, Stops Punishing Political Speech

Commission had fined school board candidate Kells Hetherington for stating his political affiliation

April 18, 2023   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Pensacola, FL — School board candidates are now free to state their political affiliation without fear of being fined by the Florida Elections Commission (FEC).

This positive development for free political speech in Florida comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by Kells Hetherington and litigated by attorneys at the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy organization that defends political speech rights.

The FEC fined Kells Hetherington, a then-candidate for the Escambia County School Board for merely stating that he is a “lifelong Republican” in a nonpartisan election. Hetherington and the Institute for Free Speech then successfully challenged the Florida law the commission used to punish Hetherington’s protected political speech.

The law in question, Florida Statute 106.143(3), included the following provision: “A political advertisement of a candidate running for nonpartisan office may not state the candidate’s political party affiliation. This section does not prohibit a political advertisement from stating the candidate’s partisan-related experience. A candidate for nonpartisan office is prohibited from campaigning based on party affiliation.”

Last November, U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers of the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, agreed with Hetherington and the Institute for Free Speech that candidates have a First Amendment right to speak to voters about their political views and background. Although states can establish nonpartisan offices, they cannot prohibit candidates from mentioning party affiliation, especially since party affiliation is a useful shorthand for conveying to voters a set of beliefs and ideas.

As such, Judge Rodgers struck down as unconstitutional this portion of the Florida law. The decision means that Hetherington and other candidates for nonpartisan offices in Florida are now free to express their party affiliation without being fined by the FEC. The decision included a permanent injunction against the FEC and summary judgment in Hetherington’s favor. Consistent with the judgment, the FEC paid $175,000 for plaintiff’s attorney’s fees to the Institute for Free Speech.

“Candidates for nonpartisan Florida political offices can now fully exercise their free speech rights to promote their candidacy,” said Ryan Morrison, Attorney for the Institute for Free Speech. “We’re pleased the Florida Elections Commission understood that a large attorney’s fees award was justified and agreed to a reasonable amount. We hope that this case serves as a warning to all states that they cannot limit a candidate’s right to convey basic political messages to voters without violating the First Amendment.”

“I’m happy with this result, and I’m even happier that other candidates won’t face the same restrictions that blatantly infringed on my constitutional right to free speech,” said Hetherington. “I’m deeply grateful to the Institute for Free Speech for helping me fight this injustice.”

To read more about the case, Hetherington v. Madden, click here. To read Judge Rodgers’ opinion, click here.

IFS Staff

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