Court blocks lower contribution limit for minors

By on August 8, 2012

As a result of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida (ACLU) on behalf of Julie Towbin, a 17-year-old resident of Boca Raton, a federal judge enjoined enforcement of Florida’s law putting a lower cap on political contributions for minors. In her 36-page opinion, United States District Judge Kathleen M. Williams of the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, states that the law limits minors’ Constitutionally-protected right of Free Speech.

Florida law limits donations made by minors to state and local candidates to $100 per candidate per election while adults may contribute up to $500 per candidate per election. Today’s preliminary injunction prevents the state from enforcing the unfair limit set on minors. The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of Towbin in January 2012, asking the Court to declare the law unconstitutional.

“This isn’t just a victory for minors, it’s a victory for the First Amendment,” stated Towbin. “The law violated my constitutional right to engage in political speech and participate in our political process. Today’s ruling means my voice is no longer worth one-fifth of someone else’s.”

Towbin is a recent high school graduate who, in addition to earning money from a job as cashier in a restaurant, earned more than $7,000 as a Congressional House Page in 2011. She keeps her funds in a bank account in her name. She is registered to vote and plans to cast her first ballot in the November 2012 elections, by which point she will be 18.

In September 2011, Towbin wanted to attend a fundraising dinner for the Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee, of which she is a member. But she was told that purchasing a regular $150 ticket to the dinner may be a violation of the $100 limit on contributions by minors. She did not attend the dinner.

Because of her concerns about violating the law by making contributions to local candidates in 2012, Towbin wrote the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, the Palm Beach County State Attorney, the State Attorney General and the Florida Elections Commission which is responsible for hearing potential violations and issuing penalties such as criminal referrals for prosecution and fines. Receiving no assurances that making contributions over $100 would not result in legal penalties, Towbin has not made any such campaign contributions. Because of the injunction, she may now do so without fear of civil or criminal penalties.

“This law put an unconstitutional limit on some citizens’ ability to engage in political activities based solely on their age,” stated Randall C. Marshall, Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Our laws should encourage everyone regardless of age — and especially young people — to participate in the political process. Instead, this law took away speech and political participation rights to young citizens.”

The Florida law enjoined today applies only to Florida state and local candidates. Federal election rules contain no similar restriction. Even though she is a minor, Towbin may contribute up to $2,500, the same amount allowed for adults, to candidates for federal office such as President or Congress.

“The Constitution does not allow the state to treat speech differently based on who is doing the speaking,” said James K. Green, cooperating attorney in the case. “If the state has a need to limit contributions to a set amount – in this case $500 – the amount needs to be the same for everyone without exception.”

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