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Federal court hears oral arguments over grassroots organization campaign contributions

A federal judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida [official website] Wednesday heard oral arguments in a case challenging whether political speech from grassroots organizations can be regulated under campaign finance laws [JURIST news archive]. Judge Robert Hinkle, who heard the arguments, partially denied a preliminary injunction [opinion, text] in October to stop enforcement of the challenged campaign finance law prior to last fall's election. The plaintiffs, represented by the Institute for Justice [advocacy website], are four Sarasota residents who wanted to finance air radio ads that they created opposing a state constitutional amendment. The four plaintiffs intended to spend $150 each to air the ads and also wished to collect monetary contributions from others to air the ads more frequently. The Florida Department of State [official website] considered the group to constitute a "political committee" under Fla. Stat. § 106.011(1)(a) [text] and wants to require them to comply with the attendant campaign contribution regulations such as disclosure and filing requirements. At oral arguments Wednesday, the plaintiffs argued these requirements should not be applied to grassroots organizations [AP report] since they are stricter than the campaign financing requirements for labor unions and corporations. Their lawyer cited the US Supreme Court [official website] decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report], which eased restrictions on political campaign spending by corporations and labor unions on First Amendment [text] grounds. Hinkle countered that Citizens United made no mention of political committees. The Florida State Department argued that such requirements are necessary for the electorate to know who is donating money since many grassroots organizations use ambiguous names. It is unknown when Hinkle will rule but the Institute for Justice announced plans to appeal if ruled against.

The Florida federal courts have been a battleground over campaign finance regulation. Last month, Judge Hinkle enjoined a campaign finance law [JURIST report] providing matching funds for publicly-financed candidates. The lawsuit was brought by now Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) [campaign website] during last year's Republican gubernatorial primary when he was running against a publicly-financed candidate. Scott argued the law violated his First Amendment rights because it limited his campaign expenditures to $24.9 million since every dollar over would be matched in public funding for his opponent. Hinkle struck down the law after issuing a temporary injunction blocking it during the primary campaign. Hinkle's reasoning in that case closely followed the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] striking down a similar Arizona campaign finance law, also on First Amendment grounds.

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