The Chilling Effect of Campaign Finance Laws

March 6th, 2012

Adam Liptak has a nice Sidebar piece which looks at a law that prohibits making false statements in political campaigns. Some dude made a statement that, arguably, was false, on Twitter, and he got a cease-and-desist letter from the state (no doubt at the urging of the faction he challenged). He ceased and desisted.

Mark W. Miller did not think Cincinnati should be spending money on a streetcar project, and he said so on Twitter. He urged his hundreds of followers to vote against the project, which was on the local ballot last November.

Here was a typical Twitter message: “15% of Cincinnati’s Fire Dept browned out today to help pay for a streetcar boondoggle. If you think it’s a waste of money, VOTE YES on 48.”

Mr. Miller, 46, a mechanical engineer, said he expected a debate. What he got instead was a legal action from supporters of the streetcar project under an Ohio law that forbids false statements in political campaigns.

In the end, Mr. Miller’s effort did not come to much: voters rejected the effort to stop the project, and the election commission dismissed the complaint against him. But he said he had learned a bitter lesson.

“I’ve got to second-guess myself every time I sit down in front of a computer,” he said. “Maybe I should moderate my stance, so I don’t get involved in an expensive action.”

Liptak’s piece focuses on the danger of laws that ban false speech, but campaign finance laws in general serve to stigmatize and chill the speech–especially of individuals–who oppose the status quo. The requirements of complying with these laws make it onerous; the only people who can figure the laws out are the people that have the most money (the same people supporters of campaign finance law usually dislike). That is one of the bitter ironies of campaign finance law. They serve to protect incumbents, reward the wealthiest people who can navigate the thicket of laws, and stifle small groups who want to fight back.  It is the speech that is never heard that troubles me far more than speech paid for by some wealthy plutocrat.

Now change the facts slightly. Instead of tweeting that message, he wanted to raise funds to place a commercial on TV or radio. Does that change the calculus? Is money speech? Now change the facts slightly. His local union or civic organization or small business would be directly impacted by this bill, so he (and everyone else) in his group agree to spend money from their general treasury fund to pay for those commercials? (That’s Citizens United).