Make No Law readers may remember the Institute for Justice’s victory in Sampson v. Buescher, where the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that grassroots groups have the right to speak about ballot issues without registering with the government and disclosing their activity. Now the positive effects of that ruling are being felt in other states. Last Wednesday, in the case of Hatchett v. Barland, No. 2:10-cv-00265 (E.D. Wis. Sept. 14, 2011), a federal trial court in Wisconsin followed the Sampson ruling to conclude that it violates the First Amendment to force a citizen to tell the government that he sent a few political postcards to his neighbors.
“Mailing post cards?” you ask. “That doesn’t sound like those ‘fat cats’ we keep hearing about.” Indeed, this case is just the latest example of how the burdens of disclosure laws fall hardest on ordinary citizens who don’t have lawyers to alert them to the pitfalls of campaign finance laws.
Here’s what happened. In 2006, only a few days before a Spring election, Charles Hatchett discovered that a referendum concerning liquor sales was on the ballot in his town. Afraid the referendum would pass because of lack of publicity he sent out 524 postcards advocating that people vote against it. It worked—the referendum was defeated.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hatchett, he did not know that under Wisconsin campaign finance law he should have placed a disclaimer on the postcards and reported his spending if it was over $25. His total came to about $300.
Once the postcards became public, police officers questioned him and his son about whether he had sent them out. Imagine that—police interrogating an American citizen because he had had the audacity to exercise his freedom of speech.
Thankfully, Mr. Hatchett fought back and won. The Wisconsin court, citing Sampson v. Buescher, ruled that applying a disclosure law to ordinary citizen speech such as Mr. Hatchett’s violates the First Amendment. This should not be a surprise: No American should have to register with the government for the “privilege” of sending postcards to his neighbors. What’s surprising is that the law ever existed in the first place.