In Victory for Free Speech, Court Strikes Down Rhode Island’s Restrictions on Campaigning Over Ballot Questions

April 27, 2006 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — Ruling on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island in 2004, U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres has struck down various aspects of Rhode Island’s campaign finance law that the ACLU argued impermissibly restricted the rights of individuals and entities to campaign for and against ballot questions.

“This court ruling is an important step forward that eliminates many burdens for those wishing to participate in the electoral process and work together on important public issues,” said ACLU of Rhode Island volunteer attorney Howard Merten. “There is still work to be done in this complicated area, but ballot question advocacy in the State of Rhode Island will be more accessible because of this ruling.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU had argued that the various laws at issue violated the First Amendment and chilled the free speech rights of the ACLU, its contributors and like-minded advocates. In a lengthy ruling, the judge agreed with most of the ACLU’s contentions.

Rhode Island law prohibits corporations, including non-profit entities like the ACLU, from contributing any money for ballot question advocacy, and the court agreed with the ACLU that such a ban was unconstitutional.

The ACLU had also argued that state law unconstitutionally limited the amount of money that people or entities could contribute to a ballot question campaign. In response, the court declared those limits to be inapplicable to ballot question campaigns, thus eliminating any such limitation.

The court also declared unconstitutional state law provisions that barred organizations from “acting in concert” with each other in coordinating expenditures and activities on ballot campaigns. However, in the one aspect of the case in which the ACLU was unsuccessful, the court held that the statute could require any contributions to ballot campaigns to go through political action committees (PACs). The ACLU had objected that such a requirement unduly burdened small non-profit organizations.

All of these limitations have had a direct and adverse impact on many non-profit organizations, including groups working for approval of a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot that would restore voting rights to felons upon their release from prison.

In response to the numerous practical and legal problems with the current law that had been highlighted by the ACLU’s lawsuit, the ACLU and a number of other non-profit organizations, including the United Way, the Rhode Island Foundation and Common Cause, have been working with the state Board of Elections to support a bill pending in the legislature that revises the current campaign finance law to address these various issues.

“The court ruling striking down various aspects of the state’s campaign finance law highlights the need for the legislature to act in order to address the various constitutional infirmities in the statute,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “Passage of the pending legislation will promote vigorous advocacy on important public issues while also ensuring transparency and accountability in the political process.”

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