Miss. appeals federal judge's block of small-group political spending laws; hearing Sept. 3



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JACKSON, Mississippi — The state of Mississippi is asking a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court ruling that part of its campaign finance law creates an unconstitutional burden for people or groups that spend at least $200 to support or oppose a ballot initiative.

The case will be argued Sept. 3 before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Opponents to the law argue the $200 threshold is so low that it would be impossible for a group of people to run a quarter-page ad in their local newspaper without having to become a political committee.

The law was challenged in 2011 by a group of Oxford residents backing an initiative that ultimately was approved by voters that year, limiting the government's use of eminent domain to take private land. They were represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group based in Virginia.

U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock ruled in September 2013 that the state may require some level of campaign finance reporting by people or groups that attempt to influence elections.

However, Aycock said that "the burdens imposed by the state's regulations are simply too great to be borne by the state's interest in groups raising or expending as little as $200."

Under Mississippi law, groups seeking to support or oppose statewide balloted measures must register as a political committee if they receive contributions of more than $200 during a calendar year or spent more than $200 in a calendar year.

The law also requires the campaign finance reports to include the name and address of anyone who donated more than $200 to the group opposing or supporting a ballot issue.

In briefs filed with the 5th Circuit, Attorney General Jim Hood said Mississippi's disclosure requirements are "substantially related to the sufficiently important government interest" of educating voters about those who seek to influence their vote.

Hood argues states with more stringent disclosure requirements than Mississippi have seen their laws upheld in other courts. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that some disclosure requirements are constitutional despite the fact that they do impose some burden on groups and individuals. Hood said this is especially true when the government wants citizens to know about the sources of election-related spending.

Paul Avelar, an Institute for Justice attorney representing the Oxford residents, said in a reply brief that under Mississippi law, grassroots citizen groups and individuals who wish to fund independent political speech promoting or opposing ballot measures are subject to extensive and confusing regulations as "political committees" that chill their speech.

"These laws have real-world, negative effects on Mississippians' ability to talk about salient political issues of the day. Not only do these laws impose significant costs on would-be speakers, they provide virtually no informational benefits to voters, the only interest they purport to further," Avelar said.

He said the Oxford residents had to curtail their activities — including buying posters and flyers — to avoid the $200 threshold.

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