Oral arguments heard in Florida case on political disclaimers

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On Tuesday, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta heard oral arguments on a case brought by four Southwest Florida residents who contend their First Amendment rights were violated when forced to choose between formally organizing a political action committee to run radio ads or “remaining silent” in their opposition to a 2010 ballot measure.

In Andrew Nathan Worley, et al., Appellants v. Florida Secretary of State, et al., plaintiff attorneys argued that laws requiring the filing and disclosure of information on political activities have a “chilling effect” on grassroots political action by residents, and that their clients considered these requirements so burdensome that they never ran their ad.

But really, what got Worley and his friends upset — even more upset than the Hometown Democracy measure  itself — was that recording the “government-mandated disclaimer” to identify themselves chipped about six seconds off of what they intended to have be a 30-second radio ad.

To produce these ads, the four residents each planned to chip in $150 to buy advertising. This would have allowed them to run about 30 ads; and they were prepared to accept money from other people to run more spots.

As small potatoes as this may be relative to the heavily-financed amendment campaigns waged by major donors, their activities nonetheless involved joint action and financing — and this, according to US District Judge Robert Hinkle, “triggers the application of the Florida political-committee provisions.”

In a previous opinion on this case, Hinkle wrote that there is a difference between individual and joint action and that nothing prevented each plaintiff from speaking as much as he or she chose, independently.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the Florida Elections Commission agreed, responding that the state is justified in requiring disclosures on contributions, expenditures, and in the identification of committees within ads.

Irony would be, of course, if these four plaintiffs wheeled around and registered a political action committee to pitch a constitutional amendment that would undermine such disclosure laws.  

But as much as political disclaimers in ads give us things to chuckle about, I would still rather know who is speaking to me.  I approve that message.