As we’ve discussed on MakeNoLaw.org before, in July 2010, the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board issued a rule that all communications made for a political purpose—including emails, Facebook posts, t-shirts and handmade signs—are subject to disclosure and reporting requirements if a speaker spends more than $25 producing them. Although the worst aspects of the rule have been temporarily suspended, it will fully take effect again by September 2011.
The rule does not just apply to traditional “express advocacy” asking people to vote for or against candidates. Sixty days before an election, the rule mandates reporting of money spent on any statement that “refers to the personal qualities” of a candidate or “supports or condemns” a candidate’s position on issues.
Thankfully, a number of groups and individuals have challenged the rule in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This week, the Institute for Justice filed a brief in support of them, arguing that the new rule will have significant chilling effects on citizens’ ability to engage with their neighbors on important public issues. The brief is available here (pdf).
Given what’s been going on in Wisconsin lately, the brief is a very timely reminder of the importance free speech plays to all sides of political debate. For example, if the members of the Wisconsin Assembly and the Governor were up for reelection within the next 60 days, the protestors who have criticized their actions over the past few weeks would have violated the law and been subject to criminal penalties because they didn’t report every penny spent on their protests. If the First Amendment means anything, it protects the protestors, and everyone else, from such a ridiculous rule.