Speak in 2016 and ye shall be fined! Maybe. So sayeth the TN Registry of Election Finance.
As you know, we are in the middle of what has been a lengthy appeal process with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. (See Registry Update #1) The appeal has been dragging on for almost a year; we do not know when it will be done. We now know that the ruling against us was highly idiosyncratic in just about every way: the process, the judgment, the definition, the statements of Registry board members and the order itself. (Seriously, if you haven’t read it, read Registry Update #1.)
But let’s look ahead. Given that this process is now well into another school board election cycle, what can we do to inform our readers? Based on the ruling of the Registry in our case (and our case alone), we may be fined tens of thousands of dollars for the following in the upcoming election:
- If one of us sends a personal email to a friend talking about a candidate we like.
- If one of us pays for a voter list so we can call people and urge them to vote (not for a specific candidate).
- If we post on Williamson Strong anything that could possibly be perceived as negative or positive about a candidate for election.
Given all of this, how can we exercise our first amendment rights and do what we’re here to do—inform you—under this threat? We’re here to keep you informed. If we can’t do that, we should close up shop right now. And that’s what some people want us to do…
We’ve been trying to figure this out for months. What to do? Both the law (TCA 2-10-207(3)) and the Citizen’s Guide specifically state that citizens should send their questions about allowed non-PAC activity directly to the Registry for a response. So we did. Here’s what we sent on April 7, 2016:
The Registry refused to answer our questions.
As we’ve said before, whoever thought of this tactic as a way to shut us up, well done! Well done indeed.
Honestly, it HAS had that effect. We’re here to inform you, but we can’t do that without risking fines and months/years of defending ourselves from the state? Yikes.
A cadre of committed activists (including multiple elected officials) has worked hard to shut us up in various ways (See Anatomy of a Smear Campaign) The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance has been a very successful venue for them.
We want to inform you about what is going on. We want to let you know about the issues facing our schools. We ALSO want to report everything we can find out about those running for Williamson County School Board seats. The Registry, though, is unwilling to clarify the law for us. So the threat of more fines remains.
We’re trying to decide on how to proceed. We’ll let you know as soon as we know.