ACLU Opposes North Dakota “Ethics” Measure Saying It Would Be an Unconstitutional Restriction on Free Speech

Measure 1 supporters, who refer to their initiative as an "anti-corruption" or "ethics" measure, file documents with Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

Last month I wrote in a print column that Measure 1 – which supporters refer to as the “ethics” or “anti-corruption” measure – is an affront to the 1st amendment.

Here’s an excerpt:

I would encourage you readers to go to the secretary of state website and read the text of the measure for yourself. You will note that it contains no exception to this reporting requirement for individuals spending their own money to express their personal point of view on a given campaign or piece of public policy.

Thus we are left with a constitutional mandate so absurdly broad that a citizen spending their own money on fuel and meals and lodging while traveling Bismarck to testify on a bill would have to disclose their spending to the government if the spending is over $200.

A private citizen who buys an ad in their local newspaper to criticize the mayor or the city council or the Legislature would also be subject to regulation if the ad buy is over $200.

There’s not even an exemption for the media. Talk radio hosts like me, newspaper columnists like me, bloggers like me, would probably be subject to the regulations implemented by this measure because we spend our days influencing politics and policy with analysis, opinion and original reporting.

The partisan, left wing supporters of the measure scoffed when I made those criticisms, but what if I told you that the ACLU – hardly a bastion of conservative sympathies – was also opposed to the measure?

They are. In fact, they just put out a statement opposing the measure because of the threat it represents to free speech.

“Though it’s being promoted as an ‘anti-corruption amendment,’ Measure 1 is actually so poorly written that it would institute a host of new restrictions and regulations on political speech and advocacy that would violate the First Amendment rights of all citizens,” the group says in a statement, which you can read in full below.

They continue, making an argument nearly identical to the one I made last month:

Section 1 of the measure is particularly concerning. It directs the legislature to institute laws requiring the “disclosure of the ultimate and true source of funds spent in any medium, in an amount greater than two hundred dollars, adjusted for inflation, to influence any statewide election, election for the legislative assembly, statewide ballot-issue election, or to lobby or otherwise influence state government action.”

There is no exception to this reporting requirement for individuals spending their own money to express their personal point of view on a given campaign or piece of public policy. That leaves a constitutional mandate so broad that if a private citizen wants to travel to Bismarck to testify on a bill, they’d have to disclose any money spent on fuel, meals and lodging over $200. There’s also no exemption for the media. Talk radio hosts, newspaper columnists or bloggers who influence politics and policy with their reporting and analysis would likely be subject to these regulations, too.

“Our First Amendment Rights are too important to let this constitutional mandate pass,” Heather Smith, the ACLU’s executive director for North Dakota, is quoted as saying in conclusion.

Here’s the full release:

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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