Mississippi campaign finance laws burdensome to some, not others

COSTLY SPEECH: Even the smallest of political groups have to comply with Mississippi’s campaign finance laws.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Imagine what you’ll get for the low, low price of $200. Sounds like an infomercial for cubic zirconium jewelry or the dulcet tones of Zamfir’s pan flute?

If it’s $200 or more worth of political speech, your group is subject to Mississippi campaign finance laws. A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a law that forces groups to register with the state under its “political committee” statute.

Institute for Justice attorney Paul Avelar, who represented the group in Justice v. Hosemann case, said the Mississippi laws are a clear roadblock to free speech.

“It’s America. You’re not supposed to have a campaign finance attorney and an accountant just to talk about political issues of the day, and the Supreme Court has said that,” Avelar said. “Courts in the country, such as the 5th Circuit, have said we’re not so concerned about that without taking a good, hard look at the laws people are subjected to.

“The campaign finance reformers are always bemoaning these big-money groups. The irony it is laws like these keep small groups out and wind up ceding speech to these bigger groups.”

Not everyone has issues with the “political committee” registration law. Two leaders of the Mississippi Tea Party, chairman Laura Van Overschelde and treasurer Sandra Inman, both said the law — which requires registration with the secretary of state and filing an annual financial report — isn’t difficult to follow. The forms for the registration and the annual report are one page apiece.

According to state officials, the law is needed to “inform the public,” and Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann keeps a list of all groups on his website.

“The Fifth Circuit has confirmed our belief Mississippi has reasonable financial disclosure requirements aimed at informing the public,” Hosemann said in a news release.

The case began in 2011. A group of friends in Oxford — Vance Justice, Sharon Bynum, Matt Johnson, Alison Kinnaman and Stan O’Dell — formed an informal group that discussed politics and decided to add their voices to the debate over a 2011 Mississippi ballot initiative on eminent domain abuse — they worked to raise money for fliers, signs and even considered taking out an ad in their local newspaper.

But once the group learned the penalties for not registering as a political advocacy group, members reconsidered.

Those penalties can include up to $1,000 in fines or even a year in jail. They decided to take the matter to court with the Institute for Justice and won a decision at the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi in 2013.

Avelar said that campaign finance laws are intended to get the “money out of politics” and prevent the corruption of politicians. But the law in this case, said Avelar, doesn’t fulfill this purpose in this situation.

“This is spending to inform voters about an issue on the ballot,” Avelar said. “You can’t bribe an issue on the ballot. The Supreme Court has said since 1978 there is no threat of corruption in measures on a ballot. The idea that you can restrict money shouldn’t even apply to measures on a ballot.”

The fight for the five Oxford residents isn’t necessarily over. They can either ask for the entire 5th Circuit court to review the case by Nov. 28 or have until Feb. 12 take their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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