Opening the Political Dam: A Call to Free Speech Reform in Wyoming
“All power is inherent in the people . . .”
Wyo. Const. art. I, § 1.
“Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects . . .”
Wyo. Const. art. I, § 20.
“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people to peaceably assemble . . .”
U.S. Const. amend. I.
Americans are guaranteed the freedom of speech. Even those who cannot quote the First Amendment instinctively understand that the government has no place controlling the thoughts and words of any group or individuals. But a number of state and federal laws do just that, most effectively against political speech. Here in Wyoming, the state Election Code imposes real burdens – demanding individuals register and report with the state before speaking, demanding that but miniscule amounts of money might be spent to support favored groups and candidates, demanding the surrender of constitutional rights.
These laws are like many regulations in Wyoming: instead of protecting individuals, they insulate a certain industry—in this case, the political class—from competition. For a state that prides itself on having a citizen legislature and politicians who are in touch with their constituencies, Wyoming law goes to great lengths to give advantage to incumbents, entrenched political parties, professional lobbyists and other political players who can navigate the system.
In this first issue of the Liberty Brief, Benjamin Barr illustrates a number of laws within the Election Code that violate our right to free speech and secure the political class. For example:
- The Election Code does not define “political contribution.” When you give money to a candidate for office, you probably assume it’s a contribution. But what if you donate to an organization that sometimes supports a candidate or a number of candidates for office? What if you volunteer to help a candidate’s campaign? You might just be fined up to $10,000 for your act of voluntary citizenship. The Wyoming Election Code provides no guidance for these and other activities that might be considered “contribution,” forcing average citizens to risk prosecution in order to support or oppose candidates. These kind of vague laws are considered “chilling” because they scare people away from association and speech, and because of this they violate the First Amendment.
- The Election Code’s contribution limit is too low. The contribution limit for a person in Wyoming is $1,000 per candidate, and this protects incumbents from being challenged. To make an effective run against an established office holder, you must spend an inordinate amount of time raising money from different people rather than focusing on the issues. It costs money to get a message out, so restricting contributions to such low levels hinders free speech, which means that this law also violates the First Amendment.
- The Election Code requires registering with the state to band together. If you join with a friend or a group of people to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure, you must register with the state and regularly report the money your group spends. The legal hoops one must jump through just to speak together chills speech and another part of the First Amendment—the right to peaceably assemble. This law pigeonholes citizens: while you may speak as an individual, you will need to comply with layers of red tape just to join together to increase your voice and disseminate your message. The other, easier option is to join with established groups or one of the parties that already have the resources and knowledge to navigate this web of laws, which is exactly what these groups want you to do.
Free speech means protecting the robust exchange of ideas on all topics, and politics should be no exception. This issue of the Liberty Brief offers solutions to making Wyoming a leader in free political speech, a state where citizens may easily challenge politicians and political players.