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Commentary: Measure 1 is an affront to the First Amendment

MINOT, N.D.—A group calling themselves the North Dakotans for Public Integrity is backing Measure 1, a constitutional ballot measure sold as an "anti-corruption amendment."

Yet the NDPI aren't really North Dakotans so much as a local front group for Hollywood activists, judging by their financial disclosures, and their proposed amendment isn't "anti-corruption" so much as anti-free speech.

"The initiative could raise serious First Amendment concerns because of the additional vague rules it appears to impose on citizens and groups that wish to speak about public matters and state government," Eric Wang, a senior fellow at the Institute for Free Speech who monitors campaign finance laws and speech policies around the nation, said in a recent report about Measure 1.

His criticism focuses on Section 1 of the measure which directs the Legislature to institute laws requiring the "disclosure of the ultimate and true source of funds spent in any medium, in an amount greater than two hundred dollars, adjusted for inflation, to influence any statewide election, election for the legislative assembly, statewide ballot-issue election, or to lobby or otherwise influence state government action."

I would encourage you readers to go to the secretary of state website and read the text of the measure for yourself. You will note that it contains no exception to this reporting requirement for individuals spending their own money to express their personal point of view on a given campaign or piece of public policy.

Thus we are left with a constitutional mandate so absurdly broad that a citizen spending their own money on fuel and meals and lodging while traveling Bismarck to testify on a bill would have to disclose their spending to the government if the spending is over $200.

A private citizen who buys an ad in their local newspaper to criticize the mayor or the city council or the Legislature would also be subject to regulation if the ad buy is over $200.

There's not even an exemption for the media. Talk radio hosts like me, newspaper columnists like me, bloggers like me, would probably be subject to the regulations implemented by this measure because we spend our days influencing politics and policy with analysis, opinion and original reporting.

Proponents of the measure will accuse me of exaggerating. That was their defense when these issues came up during a recent panel discussion I moderated for the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. They scoffed, arguing that no court would ever interpret their language that way.

Yet the language says what it says. Are they really expecting voters to pass this measure while relying on the forbearance of the courts to result in a less draconian level of enforcement than the literal text of the measure calls for?

That's assuming the proponents aren't motivated by a desire to rein in free speech. Given that groups like End Citizens United, which is organized around opposition to a Supreme Court ruling protecting political speech, are the money behind this measure I'm not sure that's an assumption we can make.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort

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