Colo. group scores court win in free-speech case

Leader calls it ‘vindication’

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DENVER | A group of Colorado neighbors who ran afoul of the state’s complex campaign-finance rules scored a victory Tuesday when a federal appeals court ruled that the law imposed an unreasonable restriction on free-speech rights.

Judge Harris L. Hartz of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the six neighbors in North Parker, Colo., should not have had to register as an “issue committee” in order to fight a proposed neighborhood annexation.

“The average citizen cannot be expected to master on his or her own the many campaign financial-disclosure requirements set forth in Colorado’s constitution, the Campaign Act, and the Secretary of State’s Rules Concerning Campaign and Political Finance,” said Judge Hartz in his opinion.

Karen Sampson, who led the small, grass-roots group opposing the annexation, called the ruling in Sampson v. Buescher “a complete vindication.”

“Campaign regulations and red tape serve no purpose in local ballot issue elections other than to make political participation more difficult for other citizens,” Ms. Sampson said.

At the same time, supporters of Colorado’s campaign-finance laws took heart in the court’s refusal to overturn the law outright, instead disagreeing with the application of the law.

“The court’s ruling was as applied to the unique experience of this Parker neighborhood,” said Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “That the balance of the state interest versus the citizen burden in this instance too great.”

The decision comes as the latest in a series of court rulings loosening restrictions on free speech, notably the Supreme Court’s January decision lifting limitations on corporate and union spending in campaign broadcasting, in response to tighter legislative campaign-disclosure rules.

In the Parker case, Ms. Sampson and her neighbors had decided to contest an effort to have their tiny North Parker neighborhood annexed to the city of Parker. They bought yard signs and fliers, but failed to file with the state as an issue committee.

Under Colorado law, any group of two or more people that spends more than $200 to speak out about a ballot issue must register with the state. The neighbors decided to fight the law and were represented by attorneys with the Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C.

For the North Parker neighbors, it was a double victory: They defeated the annexation by a vote of 351-21 in 2006, and then won the court fight.

“The ruling means that grass-roots political activists in Colorado and the other states that compose the Tenth Circuit can speak freely without fear of being sued by their political opponents,” said Institute of Justice senior attorney Steve Simpson. “The court recognized that the states have little or no interest in requiring groups that simply wish to speak out for and against ballot issues to register and comply with complicated disclosure rules.”

The problem with allowing individuals or groups to participate in ballot campaigns without registering is that voters don’t know who’s sending the message, Ms. Flanagan said.

“We believe having these laws on the books is really important for voters to determine who’s trying to influence their vote,” she said. “When money’s being spent, voters have the right to know who’s spending it.”

But the court ruled that aiding political participation outweighed the voters’ interest in knowing the players behind ballot measures. “Nondisclosure could require the debate to actually be about the merits of the proposition on the ballot,” said the opinion.

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