Appeals court to rule on new law targeting political groups

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An organization opposed to gay marriage is asking a federal appeals court to reject parts of a Florida election law that seeks to rein in outside political groups, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The National Organization for Marriage is challenging the constitutionality of 2010 legislation that dealt with what are known as “electioneering communications organizations” — which are not directly connected with candidates or parties but can run ads and send mailers to voters.

Attorneys for the national non-profit group and the state argued last week before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The appeal came after Senior U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle, of Gainesville, upheld the constitutionality of the law last year.

Electioneering communications organizations, or ECOs, are structured differently than traditional political-action committees and provide another vehicle for outside groups to try to influence elections or issues. In the case, the National Organization for Marriage argues that the state law “chills” political speech and that the definition of ECOs is too vague.

The group said in a court document it would have to comply with a “panoply of burdens” if it was deemed an ECO, including reporting information about contributions and expenditures. Also, it said it would spend only a small part of its overall budget on Florida elections.

“The weight of these burdens is such that the speech would simply not be worth it for NOM (National Organization for Marriage),” the document said. “NOM does not want to bear these political-committee burdens that Florida imposes under the electioneering-communications organization label.”

Lawmakers passed the measure after an earlier ECO law was found unconstitutional. Without such a law in place, the state argued in a court document, “interest groups could spend freely to influence elections without disclosing information necessary for voters to make informed decisions.”

It pointed, in part, to a notorious 2009 special Senate election in Northeast Florida that included shadowy, racially-charged mailers sent to voters. St. Augustine Republican John Thrasher, who was the target of repeated attacks, won the election.

The lawsuit started in September 2010 because the National Organization for Marriage wanted to run ads and send mailers related to the November 2010 elections. The material, examples of which were included in the lawsuit, did not explicitly endorse candidates but it lauded some for their positions on issues such as opposing gay marriage.

As an example, the group planned to send mailers that would tout at least one legislative candidate as a “proven fighter for Florida families and children, an effective fiscal conservative, a tireless taxpayer advocate (and) a dedicated community volunteer.” The mailer also would urge voters to call, e-mail or write the candidate to offer thanks for public service.

The examples don’t name the lawmakers that would be featured in the mailers. But they indicate the group planned to run upbeat radio and television ads about Gov. Rick Scott.

In court documents, the state said ECO laws are designed to address organizations that are involved in “unambiguously campaign related” speech.

“NOM has not offered any interpretation of its proposed speech other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate,” the state argued. “Nor has NOM argued that its proposed speech does not constitute unambiguously campaign-related speech, which Florida may undisputedly regulate.”

In his ruling last August, Mickle sided with the state’s arguments.

“NOM’s proposed communications bring it within the scope of Florida’s electioneering communications laws, which were promulgated to provide information to voters about who is behind election advertisements,” Mickle wrote.

Attorneys for both sides could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. It is not clear how long it will take for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule.

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.