There’s good news today. Two plucky citizens, one in Mississippi and another in Arizona, stood up to defend free speech, and everyone was rewarded when two federal courts joined the defense. Restoring lost constitutional freedoms sometimes requires patience and always requires vigilance. Officials of various sizes and persuasions often look at the First Amendment with a skeptical eye because they don’t relish answering to the people who elected them.
In Oxford, Miss., a group of friends joined together to back a ballot referendum, Initiative 31, designed to stop the state’s abuse of eminent domain for private profit. They soon hit a barrier. State law requires that anyone who spends $200 on grass-roots campaigning to register with the government. This further requires hiring a lawyer qualified to navigate the puzzling regulations outlining record-keeping, record retention and reporting. The supporters of Initiative 31 could not even buy a newspaper advertisement without triggering the restriction on their constitutional right to petition their government. The citizens sued.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Sharon Aycock set aside the law. “The court finds that the $200 threshold is simply too low for the substantial burdens that the statute imposes on groups and individuals,” she ruled. “Thus, as applied to plaintiffs, the state’s group registration and individual reporting requirements are unconstitutional.”
In Arizona, one Dina Galassini sent an email to her friends asking them to join her in opposing a road bond proposal. She organized two public protests, and this annoyed the town clerk. She sent a letter to Mrs. Galassini demanding that she “cease any campaign-related activities” until she formed a political committee under state law and assumed the paperwork demanded by the state. “If any additional person or persons join the effort,” the clerk wrote, they must register as a political action committee “prior to any electioneering taking place.” This looked like a clever way to make the citizens shut up. Mrs. Galassini did not shut up. She sued.
U.S. District Judge James A. Teilborg, echoing the sentiments of his Mississippi colleague, ruled that the clerk’s letter was a conscious attempt to chill the exercise of the First Amendment. “The town threatened [Mrs. Galassini] with enforcement of the statutory scheme,” the judge ruled, and this “caused her to sustain a constitutional injury.” By happy coincidence, the Mississippi and Arizona rulings were handed down on the same day.
The Supreme Court took a giant step for mankind, or at least American mankind, three years ago with its Citizens United decision that overturned campaign-finance restrictions. Uppity citizens are a constant pain in the neck for politicians, which is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it to be. The First Amendment does not guarantee nice speech, respectful speech, tasteful speech or even responsible speech. It guarantees free speech. This is the lesson that the courts must teach whenever it sees the opportunity.