At least once a week, Nathan Worley, Pat Wayman, John Scolaro and Robin Stublen talk politics as part of a Tampa-area political group. But in 2010, a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution prompted them to stop just talking and take political action.
The target of their concern is Amendment 4, which is popularly known as the “Hometown Democracy Amendment.” Amendment 4 would require that municipalities that adopt or amend their local comprehensive land-use plan submit the changes to a referendum of the voters.
Nathan, Pat, John and Robin see Amendment 4 as an affront to property rights that will stifle economic growth in Florida—and they think other voters need to hear that view. So the group decided to pool their resources and run a newspaper or radio ad against Amendment 4. But, thanks to Florida’s campaign finance laws, such spontaneous political expression is all but impossible.
Under Florida law, any time two or more people get together to advocate the passage or defeat of a ballot issue and raise or spend more than $500 for the effort, they become a fully regulated political committee. At today’s advertising rates, running even a single newspaper ad could cause them to cross this threshold.
Thus before even being allowed to speak the group would have to cut through a slew of red tape. First, Nathan and the others would have to register with the state and establish a separate bank account. Then the group could run its ads, but it would have to keep meticulous financial records and report all activity. This means that if they accept even a $5 contribution, they must deposit it into their designated bank account and report to the state the name and address of the contributor. Similarly, every expenditure, even for gas to drive to the radio station to record their ad, must also be reported. And unlike most states, Florida does not place any lower limit on contributions and expenditures that have to be reported—even a one-cent contribution must be separately itemized, including the contributor’s name and address, and reported to the state.
If Nathan and the others speak without complying with the law, they can face civil or criminal fines of up to $1,000 per violation and even up to one year in jail.
Political insiders may be able to navigate Florida’s regulations, but for engaged citizens who simply want to speak out when they have something to say, all the paperwork and threats of legal penalties exact too high a cost. Nathan, Pat, John and Robin have jobs, families and lives to live. They do not have the time or expertise to wade through red tape to make their voices heard.
As Pat Wayman said, “These laws make politics inaccessible to common citizens; you need to hire an attorney to make sure you don’t get in trouble with the government. We shouldn’t have to file any paperwork, or hire accountants or campaign finance lawyers, just to exercise our First Amendment rights.”