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Limiting speech: Vague bill goes too far

May 12. 2014 5:21PM

Regulating political speech without violating First Amendment rights is a tough trick, and a bill before the House on Wednesday fails to pull it off.

Senate Bill 120 is promoted as a measure that merely clarifies the law regarding the participation of independent organizations in state election campaigns and requires publicly beneficial transparency. Rep. Gary Richardson wrote for the majority of the House Election Law Committee (which supports the bill): “SB 120 requires every independent special interest group that spends more than $5,000 to elect or defeat candidates for state offices to file the same expenditure reports that we as candidates and our political parties now have to file with the secretary of state.”

Why did Richardson leave out that the bill also covers groups that spend at least $5,000 on “the success or defeat of a measure or measures.”

What groups would be covered? Who knows. See if you can understand the bill’s definition of a “political advocacy organization.” It is: “any entity that spends $5,000 or more in a calendar year to pay for a communication that is functionally equivalent to express advocacy because, when taken as a whole, such communication is likely to be interpreted by a reasonable person only as advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate or candidates or the success or defeat of a measure or measures, taking into account whether the communication involved mentions a candidacy or a political party, or takes a position on a candidate’s character, qualifications, or fitness for office.”

Such vagueness is clearly intended to cast a wide regulatory net, and that would invite legal challenges. Mike Biundo, head of Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, said, “I am not going to have my First Amendment rights trampled on because they did this bill in a haphazard way.”

It was done in a haphazard way, which would cause chaos in the next election as its vague language would take effect immediately. The bill clearly needs more work. It should be retained for further study.


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