Campaign Finance Laws Stifling Free Speech, Says Group

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Campaign finance laws, meant to rein in runaway spending on national political races, are discouraging Americans from participating in local issues like ballot initiatives, a libertarian public interest law firm warned Tuesday.

"Campaign finance laws don't just impact politicians and professional campaigners inside the Beltway," said Steve Simpson, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. "They impact ordinary Americans across the nation, who simply want to speak out but are too often shut up by burdensome regulations."

Simpson took issue with laws requiring disclosure of a contributor's name, address and in some states, employer, to ballot initiative campaigns.

"Many if not most people just assume politicians are corrupt and that campaign finance laws make sense and are just done with it at that," Simpson said at a briefing at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "However, the corruption rationale can't apply in the ballot initiative context, because there is no politician in that context to corrupt."

He noted that campaign finance laws also make it more expensive for individuals or groups to contribute because of the added paperwork and time from the regulations, the guarding of privacy and the possibility of litigation over information not disclosed.

"Mandatory disclosure is a policy with appreciable costs with little in the way of benefits," added Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at the Institute for Justice.

Citing a survey his group conducted in November, Carpenter said, "Voters are no more informed as a result of disclosure [of campaign contributions], and they are not necessarily interested in the information that disclosure reveals."

"The bottom line is this - if you impose rules, regulation and red tape on the exercise of First Amendment rights of free speech, you will get less of it," said Simpson. "This is not a mix in which free speech will long survive."

But Stephen Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute, argued that "The fact that voter knowledge is low may be an argument for more disclosure, not less."

"I don't believe that the results of this [Institute for Justice] study support the notion that the costs are too great for mandatory disclosure," he said, because there are few people who actually contribute to ballot initiative campaigns.

"Less than one percent of the adult population gives money to federal elections [in amounts] large enough to be reported. Much less is given to ballot initiatives than federal elections.

"If the voter, through the disclosure, is a more informed voter - if their choice is a more informed choice - then their freedom and the freedom of our society is enhanced," Weissman asserted.

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