Diana Hsieh was a blogger when few people knew what the term meant. A passionate advocate for individual rights, she launched her now-popular blog Noodlefood in 2002 while working as a programmer as a way to get herself to write regularly on political and philosophical issues. Today, Diana presides over a mini-empire of online activism including blogs, discussion groups and even a small nonprofit. A recent Ph.D. in philosophy, Hsieh regularly speaks at philosophy conferences, writes articles and podcasts on various subjects—and still manages to find time to care for a small farm’s worth of dogs, cats and horses at her home in Sedalia, Colorado.
“Although I’m not a political junkie, I just can’t bear to remain silent on some issues,” said Hsieh.
In 2008, she spoke out against Colorado’s “personhood” amendment, which would have granted full legal rights from the moment of conception. Diana and fellow Colorado activist Ari Armstrong wrote a policy paper that they published via their just-formed nonprofit, the Coalition for Secular Government, and sent to local media. They continued to write letters and op-eds on the issue and to speak out on their blogs.
The amendment went down to defeat but reappeared on the ballot in 2010. Hsieh and Armstrong wanted to update the paper, but by now, out of school and extremely busy, Diana simply could not justify the work as a purely volunteer effort.
Enter the free market. Hsieh had been experimenting with raising money within her community of readers and activists to fund specific projects. She decided to try that with the policy paper, asking readers of her blog for pledges to help motivate her and to justify the time commitment.
“I want to be paid for the work I do,” she said. “To see people eagerly contributing their hard-earned dollars to that policy paper so that I can speak for them was hugely motivating to me.”
The idea was wildly successful. Hsieh and Armstrong received 63 pledges within a few weeks that would easily meet their target of $2,000 for the entire project.
But there was one hitch. Like most states, Colorado regulates the marketplace of ideas along with the marketplace of goods and services. Under state law, any group that spends $200 to advocate for or against a ballot issue must register with the state as an “issue committee” and comply with onerous regulations—or face fines or other legal penalties.
“In my excitement over the project, I had forgotten all about the campaign finance laws,” Hsieh remarked. Back in 2008, an attorney friend had alerted her to the laws. She spent a considerable amount of time just trying to figure out what the requirements for issue committees were. “They don’t make it easy to find this information, even if you are looking for it,” she said.
This time, Hsieh had to figure out how the law applied to a pledge drive. After an hour or so on the Secretary of State’s website, she called the office for help. She was transferred to three different people before she found someone who could answer her questions.
Colorado requires “issue committees” like Hsieh and Armstrong to report the name and address of anyone who contributes more than $20; those who give more than $100 must disclose their employer as well. All of this information is posted on the Internet. “It’s an invitation for harassment—or worse,” says Hsieh.
The regulatory burden also takes time away from Hsieh’s actual advocacy.
“We are not a big think tank,” said Hsieh. “It’s me, Ari and a telephone. These requirements mean we have less time to advocate our views.”
Worse, Colorado allows any person to bring a private action to enforce the laws against their political opponents.
“We’re taking a legal risk just by speaking out,” Hsieh said. “I fill out the forms and hope I don’t get sued. It’s very discouraging.”
With all the red tape and threats of fines and lawsuits, Colorado’s message to political entrepreneurs like Diana Hsieh who simply want to join the political fray is clear: Keep out!