My friends at the Institute for Justice have a new project, Protecting Citizen Speech, which defends the First Amendment from government encroachment by politicians looking to protect their incumbencies, and not just on the federal level.  As IJ notes, states impose campaign-finance laws that restrict freedom of speech and association in even more egregious ways than attempted through McCain-Feingold, and are in some ways more difficult to fight.  While some laws attempt to rely more on transparency than restrictions, IJ argues that even those laws result in limitations of political action:

Institute Senior Attorney Bert Gall said, “Freedom of speech is a right, not a privilege to be conditioned, regulated, and doled out in small portions by government bureaucrats.  Yet campaign finance laws across our nation erect needless barriers that punish the most effective speakers.”

For example, in 24 states, citizens who wish to spend money to speak out about ballot issues must register as political committees and navigate a complex maze of regulations.  As a result, a group of citizens in Florida who want to pool their funds to speak out against a controversial amendment that would inhibit development in the state must register with the government, appoint a treasurer, open a separate bank account, and track and report every penny that they raise and spend for their efforts.

Paul Sherman, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the Florida plaintiffs challenging the states campaign finance restrictions, pointed out the real-world harm caused by such government-imposed restrictions on free political speech.  Sherman said, “The individuals we represent want to air a radio ad listing the top five reasons to vote against Florida’s amendment to hamper development, but because of campaign finance disclaimer requirements, they will only have time to list three reasons in the 30 seconds.  The government-mandated disclosure would take up nearly six seconds—one-fifth of the airtime they have to make their point to voters.  This is just one small but tangible example of what’s wrong with campaign finance restrictions and why, if we believe in free speech, they must be challenged in court and defeated.”

The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit today, Andrew Nathan Worley, et al. v. Dawn K. Roberts, et al. challenging these regulations on behalf of a the group.

We saw one consequence of these requirements yesterday, when Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) demanded that the IRS start looking into political action groups to see whether they comply with ambiguous rules and regulations that restrict political action.  The power to regulate is the power to both silence and pick winners and losers.  Requiring full disclosure is the best policy, but even those mechanisms can be used to intimidate people into remaining out of the debate.

That’s the point made in IJ’s latest video, “Camp Politics,” along with some pointed barbs at other political peccadilloes:

My favorite moment: The Political Apology. The kids in this video are adorable and very enthusiastic about their roles — almost eerily so. They play this game better than some of the adults we have seen over the last few years, but at least in their case, it really is a game. For the rest of us, it’s serious work, and thankfully IJ is doing it.