ACLU helps 17-year-old sue to overturn age restrictions on political contributions

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL) today filed a legal challenge on behalf of Julie Towbin, a 17-year-old resident of Boca Raton, challenging Florida’s law limiting political contributions by minors because the law limits the Constitutionally protected right to free speech.

Current Florida law (statute 106.08(1)(b)(2)) limits donations made by minors to state and local candidates to $100 per candidate per election while adults and corporations may contribute up to $500 per candidate per election.

“The law goes overboard by restricting my ability to access the political process, effectively support candidates for office and express my views as others do.” Towbin said. “The state is violating a right guaranteed to me by the First Amendment – the right to engage in political speech.”

Towbin is a high school senior who, in addition to earning money from a job as cashier in a restaurant, earned more than $7,000 as a Congressional House Page in 2011. She keeps her funds in a bank account in her name. She is registered to vote and plans to cast her first ballot in the November 2012 elections.

In September, 2011, Towbin was interested in attending a fundraising dinner for the Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee, of which she is a member. But she was told that purchasing a regular $150 ticket to the dinner may be a violation of the $100 limit on contributions by minors.

Because of her concerns about violating the law by purchasing a ticket to the fundraiser and making contributions to local candidates in 2012, Towbin wrote the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, the Palm Beach County State Attorney, the State Attorney General and to the Florida Elections Commission which would be responsible for hearing potential violations and issuing penalties such as criminal referrals for prosecution and fines. Receiving no assurances that buying the ticket would not result in legal penalties, Towbin did not attend the fundraiser and has not made any campaign contributions over $100.

“It’s clear that this Florida law limits a citizen’s access to political discourse based solely on age,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “The right to speak politically as well as hear political debate is clearly protected and our laws should encourage everyone – especially young people – to engage with democracy instead of cutting people off from the process.”

The statutory age limit restriction applies only to Florida and local candidates. Under federal election rules, even though she is a minor, Towbin may contribute up to $2,500 – the same amount allowed for adults – to candidates for federal office such as President or Congress.

“The Constitution does not allow the state to treat speech differently based on who is doing the speaking,” said James K. Green, cooperating attorney in the case. “If the state has a need to limit contributions to a set amount – in this case $500 – the amount needs to be the same for everyone without exception.”

The suit was filed today in the Southern District of United States Court in West Palm Beach and asks the Court to declare Florida’s law unconstitutional as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The suit also seeks an order blocking the state from enforcing the age limit restriction on supporting candidates.

“Florida law gives more speech and political participation rights to corporations and political action committees than seventeen year olds who will vote this year,” Towbin said. “More than being unconstitutional, the law institutionalizes apathy among young people – it says your voice is worth one-fifth of someone else’s.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.