Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The Tenth Circuit ruled today in Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams that burdensome state disclosure requirements as applied to a small-scale issue-advocacy nonprofit violate the First Amendment. The ruling means that Colorado's disclosure requirements cannot apply against the Coalition for Secular Government's small-scale advocacy against a statewide "personhood" ballot initiative in the 2014 general election.
The Coalition for Secular Government is a small outfit (one person) that devotes itself to printing and distributing material against a proposed "personhood" amendment in Colorado each time it comes up for a vote--the last in 2014. Because the Coalition collects donations to support its operations, the state constitution and implementing laws and regulations require the Coalition to register as an "issue committee" and to disclose information about contributors. These turn out to be quite a hassle, especially for a small group, so the Coalition sued, arguing that they violate the First Amendment.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court applied "exacting scrutiny" and concluded that "the minimal informational interest [in disclosure] cannot justify the associated substantial burdens [of compliance]." The court noted that the small-scale nature of the Coalition had an impact on both sides of the balance. As to the informational interest, "the strength of the public's interest in issue-committee disclosure depends, in part, on how much money the issue committee has raised or spent," and the informational interest in the Coalition's spending (about $3,500) was nothing like the informational interest in a group that spent, say, $10 million. As to the burden, the court noted that a small-scale organization like the Coalition faces greater challenges in compliance than a large-scale outfit.
At the same time, the court declined to say whether the state constitutional threshold for issue-committee reporting (a mere $200) constituted a facial violation of the First Amendment. As a result, that threshold is still on the books.