Judge lets stand many of state's regulations on political committees

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A libertarian legal group said Thursday that it would appeal a ruling that let stand many of the state’s regulations on groups of individuals who campaign for or against ballot initiatives, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The Institute for Justice said the ruling, against three friends from Sarasota who ran radio ads against a proposed land-management constitutional amendment in 2010, would apply more difficult regulations on normal citizens than on major corporations under the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in the Citizens United case.

“If these laws are too burdensome for Exxon Mobil and the AFL-CIO, imagine how burdensome they are for ordinary people who can’t afford to hire professional campaign managers,” said the institute’s Paul Sherman.

Under state law, any group of two or more people who raise or spend more than $500 on an election count as a “political committee.” That would subject the Sarasota group to disclosure and reporting requirements.

“These laws keep ordinary people from speaking out about politics,” Nathan Worley, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “If you want to speak out on a controversial issue, and you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re asking for trouble.”

Worley was one of four people who decided to run $600 worth of ads in 2010 to oppose a radio ad against the “hometown democracy” amendment that voters ended up rejecting. But the group also wanted to raise money from other sources.

In the ruling, issued late Tuesday, District Court Judge Robert Hinkle said the law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United — one that barred corporations and unions from spending their own funds on election ads and instead required them to form a political action committee — was different than Florida’s requirement.

“Each plaintiff is free to speak as much as the plaintiff chooses and need not register as a political committee in order to do so,” Hinkle wrote. “It is only the plaintiffs’ decision to act jointly — and to pool their funds — that triggers the application of the Florida political-committee provisions.”

Hinkle did strike down a portion of the law that bars political committees from spending money raised in the last five days before an election. He had already blocked enforcement of that statute earlier in the case.

“In the days of electronic filing and internet access to public records, any assertion that a five-day lag time is needed to provide meaningful public access has too little weight to justify a ban on core First Amendment speech,” Hinkle wrote.

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.