Colorado’s Campaign Laws Throw Common Sense Out the Window

The following article by Linn and Ari Armtrong originally was published May 13 by Grand Junction Free Press.

It is December of 1787. You hold an intense interest in a revolutionary document, the proposed Constitution for the United States. Will you speak out, or will you remain silent?

Maybe you could write out your thoughts and print them in a pamphlet to distribute in your town. Pamphlets, signed and unsigned, for decades played a crucial role in American political discourse; eventually they would fill such books as Pamphlets of the American Revolution. Or you could rent out a room to hold a meeting. You contemplate the opportunities.

Your friend just returned from Pennsylvania, where he witnessed an attack on James Wilson, a key drafter of the Constitution. Eventually this story would become part of the tapestry of Catherine Drinker Bowen’s book Miracle at Philadelphia. These are tense times. Should you speak out anonymously?

You have heard the debate over the missing Bill of Rights. Would the new federal government protect such cherished liberties as freedom of speech? In just a few years such concerns would give rise to the First Amendment, guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”

Now imagine, if you can, the impossible absurdity of some bureaucrat standing up to proclaim, “Anyone wishing to speak out on the proposed Constitution must first register with the proper authorities, then report to those authorities the names and addresses of every significant donor to your cause, as well as all of your significant expenses, as defined by said authorities, on penalty of daily fines, and in accordance with a hundred pages of dense legalese. To assist you with this process, the government will run classes instructing you on the proper way to speak your minds.”

Can you imagine how Sam Adams, or John Hancock, or the then-anonymous writers of the Federalist essays, or any of the founders would react to such a demand? The Federalists and Anti-Federalists would momentarily forget their dispute in joint outrage. If he were exceptionally lucky, all that would happen to such a bureaucrat is that he would be tarred and feathered and then run out of town on a rail.

And yet those controls on speech describe the burdens Coloradans now face if they wish to speak out on any ballot measure. And we did this to ourselves. Or, rather, a tyrannical majority, stirred to passion by anti-liberty activists, did it to the minority. In 2002 voters approved Amendment 27, now Article XXVIII of the state constitution, to impose campaign censorship.

For censorship is precisely what the campaign laws accomplish. As several activists told the Secretary of State earlier this month in written and oral comments, the laws in fact prevent some people from speaking out, or speaking out as much, because of the onerous requirements. (To listen to Ari’s testimony and other comments, see FreeColorado.com.)

At least the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of a small activist group that got sued under the campaign laws. Because of this ruling, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who expressed grave concerns about the chilling effect of the campaign laws on free speech, proposed a rule raising the “trigger” spending level for filing as an issue group from $200 to $5,000.

Consider a few of the campaign laws’ legion absurdities. If you run a newspaper, you are not subject to the rules. If you print up pamphlets, you are. What if you start up something which to you seems like a newspaper, but which to your political opponents seems like political campaigning? Then you get sued.

If you speak out directly on a ballot measure, you are subject to the rules. If you “educate” the public only about the underlying issues, you are not. At the Secretary of State’s meeting, Matt Arnold of Clear the Bench testified to the absurdity of an issue group getting sued by an attack group not subject to the same requirements. Arnold should know: he himself was sued by the laughably named “Colorado Ethics Watch.”

On February 14, 1776, an anonymous author put the lie to the left’s paranoia about financial influence. He wrote, “Who the author of this production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public, as the object for attention is the doctrine itself, not the man. Yet it may not be unnecessary to say, that he is unconnected with any party, and under no sort of influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle.”

Today we know the author to be Thomas Paine. The work is Common Sense. He merely stated his authenticity, and proved it only through the cogency of his arguments, which he presumed individuals intelligent enough to grasp and independently evaluate.

Yet Colorado’s campaign laws throw Common Sense out the window.