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Small Ballot-Issue Groups|Score Free-Speech Victory

(CN) - A Colorado law requiring small groups that promote or oppose ballot initiatives to file campaign-finance reports violates their First Amendment rights, the 10th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

"In our view, the burden on Plaintiffs' right of association imposed by Colorado's registration and reporting requirements cannot be justified by a public interest in disclosure," Judge Harris Hartz wrote. "The burdens are substantial."

A voter-approved amendment requires all groups of two or more people who have accepted or made donations of more than $200 for a ballot initiative to register as an "issue committee," and to report the names and addresses of those who contribute $20 or more.

The amendment was challenged by six North Parker residents who raised less than $1,000 to oppose a proposal to annex their neighborhood into the town of Parker, 20 miles south of Denver. The homeowners said the state's registration and reporting requirements violated their First Amendment right to association.

"We agree that the Colorado law, as applied to plaintiffs, has violated their constitutional freedom of association," Hartz wrote.

"There is virtually no proper governmental interest in imposing disclosure requirements on ballot-initiative committees that raise and expend so little money, and that limited interest cannot justify the burden that those requirements impose on such a committee."

But the Denver-based panel cautioned against an expansive reading of its ruling, which is limited to small groups and donations.

"We do not attempt to draw a bright line below which a ballot-issue committee cannot be required to report contributions and expenditures," the court wrote. "The case before us is quite unlike ones involving the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on ballot issues presenting 'complex policy proposals.' We say only that plaintiffs' contributions and expenditures are well below the line."

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