Nathan Worley and three friends hold a weekly political discussion group in their hometown of Sarasota, Florida. In 2010, a ballot initiative for a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution prompted the group to pull together $600 and exercise their First Amendment rights. They soon found, however, that doing so wasn’t going to be quite so easy.
Under Florida’s campaign finance law, it’s illegal for two or more people to join together and spend more than $500 supporting or opposing a state ballot issue. Instead, the state forces even small groups like Worley’s to register and speak through a political committee, which is then subject to a vast catalog of vague, inscrutable regulations that are enforced by thousands of dollars in fines. To speak publicly about the ballot issue, Worley’s informal coterie would have to hire a specialized lawyer and accountant and include “disclosures” in their planned radio ads that would take up about 20 percent of the airtime.
Instead of remaining silent like most small groups do when faced with this type of prohibitive regime, the Worley crew joined with the Institute for Justice to challenge Florida’s laws and vindicate their right to free political speech in federal court. Despite the obvious speech-chilling effect of the regulations, however, the lower courts failed to rigorously scrutinize Florida’s laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in particular abdicated its judicial role in two ways.
First, instead of applying “strict scrutiny,” the court chose the more deferential “exacting” scrutiny, based on the notion that so-called “disclosure” requirements like Florida’s don’t prevent people from speaking. Second, the court hardly even applied the “exacting” standard — deciding, on its own, to all but ignore the facts of the case by analyzing it as a challenge to the entire campaign-finance regime rather than simply as-applied to small groups like Worley’s.
In light of the Eleventh Circuit’s refusal to meaningfully scrutinize Florida’s speech-restrictive laws, Worley and IJ have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato and the Center for Competitive Politics have filed a brief supporting that petition because rulings like the lower courts’ here demonstrate a clear need for the Supreme Court to clarify the correct standards to apply when evaluating campaign finance regimes like Florida’s.
Courts shouldn’t be able to get by without judging just because a state calls its speech regulation “disclosure,” or because the courts decide on their own to recharecterize the case as a “facial” challenge. A Supreme Court hearing would put needed pressure on the federal judiciary to actually scrutinize these types of speech regulations and hopefully prevent them from continuing to silence small groups with little funding — because even little platoons of politically interested citizens have First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to hear Worley v. Florida Secretary of State.
This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.