SEATTLE (CN) - Washington chills free speech with a public disclosure law that regulates grassroots lobbyists, a group of Tea Partiers told the 9th Circuit.
Voters in the Evergreen State passed the law by initiative in 1972. It requires groups to register with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission if they intend to influence legislation and spend more than $1,000 in any three months or $500 in any one month.
Conservative Enthusiasts and another all-volunteer community group called Many Cultures, One Message, sued the Public Disclosure Commission in 2010, claiming the law chills the "right to anonymous speech and association."
The groups said that identifying their members and donors could expose them to harassment. They also called the law "fatally overbroad and vague," and asked a federal judge to declare it unconstitutional.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Strombom dismissed the case in 2011, finding the plaintiffs lacked standing and could "provide absolutely no argument, or point to any evidence" that the law caused prior restraint on free speech or association rights.
The groups argued before a three-judge appellate panel on Friday that the lower court was wrong on both issues.
Jeanette Petersen, an attorney for the community groups, said the law "inserts the government into citizen to citizen speech" and is not constitutional.
It was "clear" the groups have standing to challenge the law because they suffered harm as a result of the reporting requirements, Petersen said. A local Ford dealership, for example, wanted to donate more than $500 to Conservative Enthusiasts, but it did not for fear of being identified, Petersen said.
State attorney Linda Dalton countered that the group could accept the money as long as the money was not earmarked for a specific program that would trigger reporting under the statute.
Petersen said the groups "ratcheted back" their activities because they were unsure what would provoke the disclosure requirement.
Judge William Fletcher wanted to know what particular activities were curtailed.
Petersen said Conservative Enthusiasts stopped speaking out against the Affordable Care Act because the Washington Legislature "may" have to implement portions of the law.
"The way legislation is defined in the law, it includes bills, resolutions, things that folks would normally assume legislation covers but there's also a phrase that states that legislation includes any other matter that may come before the Legislature," Petersen said. "There's almost an endless possibility of matters that may come before the Legislature."
She called the law "unconstitutionally vague."
Fletcher countered that "it sounds as though everything's covered.
"That's not vague, it's broad," Fletcher said.
Petersen said there were no guidelines about what expenses have to be reported. Community groups, for example, are unsure if they must report website hosting, she noted.
Conservative Enthusiasts also had to petition the Public Disclosure Commission for a judgment to determine if the disclosure law covered its activities, Petersen said.
"Individuals should not be required to go to the government and ask permission before they are permitted to speak to their neighbors, issue a newsletter or host a neighborhood barbecue," she told the court. "The fact that the government may be able to provide some guidance doesn't cure the constitutional issues in this particular law."
Dalton argued that the law limits a "call to action," not "simply issue advocacy."
"This law has been on the books and has been working," she said.
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