A federal judge has ruled against Colorado for violating the First Amendment in a case challenging state campaign-finance enforcement procedures that allow anyone to sue over protected-speech activities.
Strasburg resident Tammy Holland was sued twice under Colorado’s statute for running newspaper ads urging voters to educate themselves about school board candidates and the federal Common Core mandates.
The lawsuits were brought by school board members who didn’t like what she was saying.
Holland eventually was cleared of any wronging, but the lawsuits dragged on for months, costing thousands of dollars.
She then sued the state, and U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore ruled Tuesday in her favor.
“Even if the court were willing to make an argument for defendant in defense of the enforcement provisions, the court cannot create something out of nothing,” Moore wrote.
“As a result, ultimately, because defendant has failed to explain or provide evidence of how the enforcement provisions satisfy strict scrutiny, plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment.”
The judge found that the state’s procedures infringe on speech rights, noting that only a compelling state interest can overrule those rights.
“The enforcement provisions … are not reasonable. … Defendant has made no argument that they are reasonable,” he said.
The judge said to leave the enforcement of election financing provisions to anyone who may file a lawsuit “is certainly not reasonable, especially when considered in light of the asserted injury – a diminution of First Amendment speech.”
Consequently, the section of the Colorado Constitution providing for such enforcement is unconstitutional.
“I’m thrilled the court recognized what this system was doing to people like me,” Holland said in a statement released by the Institute for Justice, which represented her.
“All I did was ask my neighbors to get engaged in a local school election, and I got sued two times by people who didn’t like what I had to say. It was incredibly intimidating. Nobody should be able to sue their neighbor for talking about politics.”
IJ said the problem of state’s allowing private individuals to file complaints alleging someone else has violated a campaign finance law is “too common.”
Colorado, IJ said, was unique in that it “outsourced virtually all of its campaign-finance enforcement to private parties.”
The result was predictable: “widespread abuse, with complaints routinely being prosecuted not to enforce the laws evenhandedly, but to harass and silence political opponents. Colorado’s most prolific filer of complaints – a company called Campaign Integrity Watchdog – has even touted the process as a weapon for ‘political guerrilla legal warfare.”
IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman said the ruling “recognizes that Colorado cannot authorize ‘any person’ to police their neighbors’ political speech.”
“Under the First Amendment, nobody should have to fear being sued by their political opponents merely for expressing their opinion on the issues that matter most to them,” he said.
IJ noted that one complaint allowed by the law that took place in the 2016 election cycle was dropped by Campaign Integrity Watchdog when it was paid off with a $4,500 settlement.
The money was paid not to the state of Colorado, but to Campaign Integrity Watchdog directly.
IJ said the group also sought to extract $10,000 from a state political party, warning that otherwise “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”