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Connecticut’s campaign ad rules violate free speech, high court rules

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(The Center Square) — Connecticut’s high court has ruled that a state election panel’s ban on advertising in publicly financed campaigns violates the free speech rights of political candidates.

The unanimous ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court sided with two Republican lawmakers who were sanctioned by state election officials for using public campaign financing grants to attack then-Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Democratic fiscal policies.

In the 54-page opinion, Chief Justice Richard Robinson said a lower court erred by upholding the state elections commission’s fines against former Sen. Joe Markley and then-Rep. Rob Sampson ruled that a blanket ban on mentioning candidates in other races had violated their free speech rights.

“We conclude that none of the communications at issue in this appeal could reasonably be construed as anything more than a rhetorical device intended to communicate the merits of the plaintiffs’ candidacies as bulwarks against the policies endorsed by Gov. Malloy and the Democratic Party,” Robinson wrote.

In his ruling, Robinson noted that using prominent political figures’ names can often “provide the most meaningful and effective way for a candidate to explain to voters their political ideals, policy commitments, and the values that they hope to bring to the office that they seek.”

“Being able to categorize oneself as, for example, an opponent of the ‘Biden Democrats’ or the ‘Trump Republicans’ is of unquestionable rhetorical value to a candidate seeking office in polarized times,” he wrote. “This is particularly so for state legislative races, such as those at issue in this case, in which the plaintiffs’ communications invoke principles of Civics 101 in emphasizing their role as a check and balance on the executive branch.”

The case stems from a complaint filed against Markley, Sampson and about two dozen other GOP candidates who used public grants obtained through the state’s Citizens Election Program to attack Malloy in 2014, who went on to win reelection. Democrats filed complaints against them with the state Elections Enforcement Commission, which issued fines ranging from

Shortly before the 2014 election, the elections panel issued an advisory opinion saying public grants were meant to promote the candidates who received the funds, not those in another race.

But Markley and Sampson refused to pay the fine and filed a lawsuit with the Virginia-based Institute for Free Speech challenging the fines and the election rules underpinning them.

Sampson said the ruling sends an “unmistakable message” that publicly funded candidates retain their full right to free speech “and that the government cannot penalize them simply for discussing issues and policies relevant to their campaigns.”

“This decision is a win not just for us, but for all candidates who want to engage in robust political discourse freely and without fear of facing unconstitutional consequences,” he said in a statement.

Chip Miller, a senior attorney at the Institute for Free Speech, called the ruling a “resounding victory for free political speech and the First Amendment” and upholds the right of publicly funded candidates “to freely discuss issues and policies without fear of reprisal.”

“This policy was implemented to shield an unpopular governor from criticism by other elected officials and candidates,” he said in a statement. “A robust First Amendment must afford strong protections to political speech. Otherwise, those in power will seek to silence opponents.”

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