ACLU Challenges Limits on Ballot Advocacy Campaigns in Rhode Island

November 18, 2004 12:00 am

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Rhode Island ACLU
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PROVIDENCE, RI–The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s restrictions on the rights of individuals and organizations to campaign for or against ballot questions during elections.

“The state laws governing ballot referenda have an ironic impact,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “Multi-million dollar corporations are free to spend as much as they want to publicize their position, but small non-profit organizations are significantly restricted in their ability to raise funds and work together to counter those views.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that various state laws and election board policies violate the First Amendment and chill the free speech rights of advocacy groups and their donors. Rhode Island law currently prohibits corporations from contributing funds to organizations for the purpose of ballot question advocacy and limits contributions from individuals seeking to pass or defeat ballot questions. The ACLU said that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that both such limitations are unconstitutional.

The ACLU is also challenging a Board of Elections’ change in policy, scheduled to take effect on January 1, that would say that if an organization like the ACLU solicits contributions from its members, or consults with any other person or entity about a referendum question, it must establish a Political Action Committee (PAC), with the attendant reporting requirements and limitations on contributions to which PACs are subject. In comments appearing in today’s Providence Journal, an elections official even questioned whether a non-incorporated coalition can engage in free speech activities around a ballot question at all.

“Individuals and organizations like the ACLU have the fundamental First Amendment right to speak out on important public policy issues that appear on the ballot,” said Howard Merten, an ACLU volunteer attorney who filed the lawsuit. “Freedom of speech is severely damaged when laws and policies seek to unduly restrict peoples’ ability to make contributions or expenditures to present their views to the public.”

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