KANSAS CITY, Mo. (CN) - A ban against the distribution of anonymous political information should be held unconstitutional, a Ferguson business said in a federal complaint Wednesday.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the business owner, known only as John Doe, against five members of the Missouri Ethics Commission in Federal Court.
Doe says he wants to distribute handbills that endorse one candidate for the Ferguson City Council in the April 7 election and speak out against the candidate's opponent. Doe claims to have no affiliation with either candidate.
Missouri law states that anyone publishing any political material "shall on the face of the printed matter indentify in a clear and conspicuous manner the person who paid for the printed matter with words 'Paid for by' followed by [the name and address of the individual paying for the printed matter]." Failure to do so is a Class A misdemeanor, the lawsuit states.
Doe says he has printed handbills supporting Lee Smith and opposing Wesley Bell in the upcoming election, but doesn't have his information on them for fear of "retaliation from Ferguson officials based on the content of the handbill."
According to Doe, the law chills his right to free speech and his complaint cites precedent in a 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections, which held that "an author's decision to remain anonymous" regarding the content of a publication "is an aspect of freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, says anonymous speech is still free speech.
"The First Amendment firmly protects political speech because robust debate about political ideas and candidates is necessary for self-governance," Rothert said in a statement. "From the founding of our nation, anonymous speech has played an important role in political debate."
The lawsuit is filed at a time when political transparency is a hot button issue following the suicide of leading gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich last month.
While an official reason for the suicide was not released, many attributed it to a whisper campaign among the GOP ranks falsely identifying Schweich as Jewish and a radio ad released the week before stating that Schweich would get squashed like a "little bug" if he were the GOP nominee.
The ad also compared Schweich's physical appearance to "Andy Griffith Show" sidekick deputy Barney Fife.
During Schweich's eulogy, Rev. John C. Danforth - a former U.S. Senator - blamed dirty politics for his death. Schweich's death and Danforth's remarks have spurred lawmakers to call for cleaner politicking.
Doe's lawsuit also comes at a time when the call for political activism in Ferguson is at an all-time high, in the wake of Michael Brown's death last August and the subsequent protests.
Doe seeks an injunction banning Missouri from enforcing the law requiring identification on political handbills against him.
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