State laws threaten political speech

February 2, 2012


— Dina Galassini does not seem to pose a threat to Arizona’s civic integrity. But the government of this desert community believes you cannot be too careful. And state law empowers local governments to be vigilant against the lurking danger that political speech might occur before the speakers notify the government and comply with all the speech rules.

Last October, Galassini became annoyed — like many Ron Paul supporters, she is easily annoyed by government — about the city’s plan to augment its spending with a $29.6 million bond issue, to be voted on by mail by Nov. 8. On Oct. 6, she sent emails to 23 friends and acquaintances, urging them to write letters to newspapers and join her in two demonstrations against the bond measure. On Oct. 12, before she could organize the demonstrations, she received a stern letter from the town clerk: “I would strongly encourage you to cease any campaign-related activities until the requirements of the law have been met.”

State law — this is the state of John McCain, apostle of political purification through the regulation of political speech — says that anytime two or more people work together to influence a vote on a ballot measure, they instantly become a “political committee.” This transformation triggers various requirements — registering with the government, filing forms, establishing a bank account for the “committee” even if it has raised no money and does not intend to. This must be done before members of this fictitious “committee” may speak.

Galassini wrote to ask the clerk if it would be permissible for her to email the 23 persons telling them the demonstrations were canceled — she got no response — and told the clerk, “This is all so confusing to me.” Confusion and inconvenience — Galassini could have made an appointment for tutoring by the clerk’s office concerning permissible speech — are probably intended consequences of laws designed to burden political speech that is potentially inconvenient for government. Galassini gave up trying to influence the vote.

The Supreme Court, in its splendid 2010 Citizens United decision, said laws requiring licenses or other official permission to speak “function as the equivalent of prior restraint by giving the (government) power analogous to licensing laws implemented in 16th- and 17th-century England, laws and governmental practices of the sort that the First Amendment was drawn to prohibit.” Paul Avelar of the Institute for Justice, the nation’s only libertarian public-interest law firm, which is helping Galassini contest the constitutionality of Arizona’s law, says such niggling nuisances are proliferating nationwide.

A Florida law requires disclosure, including the name and address of the contributor, of any contribution, no matter how small — a penny for your thoughts? report it — to a political committee. A Washington state law is notably protective of the political class: There must be litigation before a campaign to recall a public official can start, and lawyers are essentially forbidden from volunteering their help with that litigation. In Mississippi, anyone can put up his or her own Web page about a ballot issue, but the Web page designer must disclose the time he or she took to do it. And anyone who spends more than $200 on political speech — say, a small ad in a local newspaper — is required to give the government monthly reports about his or her political activity.  

Such pettifogging laws reflect, aside from the joy governments derive from bossing people around, the current rage for regulating political speech lest ... what? Campaign regulations usually focus on money, supposedly to prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof pertaining to candidates. But many laws cover activities involving ballot measures, which suggests that for reformers, limiting political speech is itself the goal. Hence their obsession with political money, most of which funds the dissemination of speech.

Nationally, political hygienists are regretting their inadvertent creations, this year’s super PACs, entities run by supporters of presidential candidates, but forbidden to “coordinate” with the candidates. Super PACs are spending money that the reformers, by imposing low limits on contributions to candidates and parties, have diverted away from campaigns that otherwise could be held directly accountable for, and judged in terms of, the speech they finance. We hear, yet again, the reformers’ cry: “There is too much money in politics.” This year, the presidential campaigns combined may spend almost $2 billion, which is almost as much as Americans will, in a few weeks, spend on Easter candy.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is georgewill@washpost.com.


Ragingbear 6 years, 2 months ago

You mean a conservative state ran by Mormons may have an agenda preventing political discourse contrary to their established and unchallenged system? What next, requiring all males over the age of 18 and women over the age of 21 to serve a 2 year "mission" in this, or another country, cut away from family and friends, doing the work of the same establishment? What next? Will they have to pay for that as well?

Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

LOL. Perhaps we should require Mitt and any others elected to work in an inner city emergency room for 6 months before taking office. That might give them a taste of what the 'undeserving poor' go through every day. Would that influence their legislative concerns later on? We have a new monarchy in America; it's just financial kings and queens, not the inbred children of the royals. Only the rich need apply from either party. I think that's one reason Carter and Clinton had some problems.........they were not worthy.

Ragingbear 6 years, 2 months ago

It's not a monarchy, it's a Plutocracy. That is rule by the rich.

As for Mitt spending time in an ER, that wouldn't do anything for him. Tax his church, then the tune would be changed. Heck, tax all churches. They are just fronts for a giant scam anyways. It would definitely solve the cash flow problem.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

+1 The churches are walking a fine line. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." The ESSENE teacher was no fool. He knew the 'media' was trying to trap him into uttering a phrase that could be used in the next campaign commercials.........

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

If the churches are to be taxed, there is going to have to be a really huge increase in philanthropy by the government to make up for it.

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 2 months ago

I'm sorry, but claiming "When you tax a person's religion, you tax the source of his salvation" is utterly ridiculous. As is quoting “Six days thou shalt labor…” as if it were meaningful in this context. As is the utter nonsense of referring to "those that pay no taxes". For someone referencing the Bible, Bill Jenkins might have tried to avoid telling out-and-out falsehoods.

And the idea that money shouldn't be taken from someone because it leaves them with less??? Uh...any economy is dependent on the movement of money. Duh. And, OF COURSE in order to create anything, money must be taken from the people holding it. Double duh.

Sorry, but this was an incredibly poorly thought out commentary.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

Good column, Mr. Will. I disagree about Citizens' United and hope this can be cured with new legislation, but overall, you are on the right track.

ebyrdstarr 6 years, 2 months ago

Have you read Citizens United? Because the court's basic holding was that government can't infringe on speech, especially political speech, regardless of who the speaker is, whether it's a person, a group, or a corporation. The court said nothing about corporations being people. So I think the court's conclusion is must closer to your second paragraph than your first.

Kendall Simmons 6 years, 2 months ago

I find it amazing how many people don't realize that the concept of corporate "personhood" has been around since the late 1800s...and that it's actually a good thing.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago


It seems to me that it is a fiction which is not at all connected to the reality of a corporation, and that it mainly serves to limit individual liability.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

"Nationally, political hygienists are regretting their inadvertent creations, this year’s super PACs, "

Jeez, George, how daft can you be? These are not the inadvertent creations of those who think that political speech should not be available only to the highest bidder-- to the contrary, it's the very intentional creation of the moneyed interests and their hired hands on the Supreme Court who through judicial activism created your cherished monstrosity known as "Citizen's United."

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Despite all the money being thrown at candidates, whether from PACs, Super PACs, special interest groups, large individual donors, unions, whatever, ultimately, the person that takes office will be the person who receives the most votes.
If the voters can be so easily duped by 30 second commercials then perhaps they deserve the government they get.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 2 months ago

The more important aspect of the big-money campaigns is the majority of voters who are so alienated by the odious process that they tune it out and stay home on election day.

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