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Campaign-Finance Law Suit Tossed by 5th Circ.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Siding with grassroots organizations, the 5th Circuit struck down a constitutional challenge to Mississippi's campaign-disclosure requirement.

A group of Mississippi citizens and the Institute for Justice challenged the state's political committee requirement on First Amendment grounds, claiming it stifled their rights of free speech and association.

The five politically active plaintiffs argued that forcing the disclosure requirements on individuals and small groups spending just over $200 in support or opposition of ballot initiatives is unconstitutional, "onerous and complicated."

They said their political activities are fueled by literally "passing the hat" at their meetings, but when they attempted to do that in 2011, they found modest activities had become a lot more complicated.

They desire was to raise funds to purchase posters, advertising and flyers to support a ballot measure against eminent domain abuse.

But, they claimed Mississippi's "complicated disclosure requirements" prevented them from engaging in any kind of political activity during the 2011 amendment election "and continues to prevent the plaintiffs and other similarly situated groups from exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and association."

A federal judge upheld their "as-applied" challenge in 2013, prohibiting Mississippi from enforcing the requirements against small groups and individuals spending just in excess of Mississippi's $200 disclosure threshold.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock found the $200 threshold "is simply too low for the substantial burdens that the statute imposes on groups and individuals."

But a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit on Friday unanimously found the requirements constitutional.

Finding that the reporting and disclosure requirements are not burdensome, the court said that they "further Mississippi's interest in providing information to voters."

"An individual donating more than $200 must complete one form, a monthly report, and only expenditures exceeding $200 to a single source within that month need be itemized," Judge Gregg Costa wrote for the court.

"Plaintiffs are unable to show that these disclosure requirements for individuals are unconstitutional in all applications," the 26-page decision states.

Institute for Justice attorney Paul Avelar said the laws don't benefit the public. "They only impose onerous burdens on speech and scare ordinary Americans away from political engagement, resulting in less speech," he said in a statement. "In America, you shouldn't need lawyers and accountants in order to speak about politics, all you should need is an opinion.".

The group has until Nov. 28 to seek rehearing by the full 5th Circuit, or until Feb. 12 to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mississippi punishes violations of financial-disclosure requirements as a misdemeanor that could result in a maximum penalty of $3,000 and up to six months in jail, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

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