Can the government put words in your mouth? The constitution says no, but some officials say yes. Their scheme turns political ads disclaimers into something completely different. Once it is a matter of defining yourself to viewers, Americans now often face impossible rules when speaking about an election on the radio or television, in the newspapers, or online.
This advertising disclaimer is intended to tell viewers or listeners that they are trying to persuade. But even traditional disclaimers may raise concerns because they compel speakers to express a government message. However, out of caution, states and localities enforce a lengthy and confusing disclaimer that bypasses the First Amendment.
Just ask San Francisco activist Todd David. He formed the group “Yes” on Pillar B to support the ballot initiative on disaster preparedness. But city law made it nearly impossible to run ads by forcing them to take a lengthy 28-second disclaimer. David, who is challenging such a law with the help of the Institute for Freedom of Expression, asked, “How are groups supposed to communicate with voters if the ads are swallowed up with a disclaimer?”
When disclaimers consume such large chunks of ads, communicating with voters becomes more expensive. Smaller and cheaper advertising formats become impossible and impractical to use, hurting many groups with less cash. What may seem a minor inconvenience can effectively silence the political messages of many groups.
To make matters worse, states and localities often require ads to include redundant and misleading information, such as the names of donors. The government’s rape of citizens’ rhetoric is bad enough. Forcing them to display the donors’ names already available in public records and forcing them to take on yet another financial burden takes the cake.
There is no logical reason for this. Disclaimers laws that compel groups to provide redundant information about donors can leave viewers inundated rather than informed. San Francisco requires campaign advertisers to disclose more than a dozen separate contributors, including individuals who have never submitted to the ad buying group. In what world can identifying people really unrelated to voter advertising?
If you give to group A, group A gives it to group B, why are your name posted on group B ads? You likely have no way of knowing that group A will give it to group B, which may not have been there at the time of your donation. To avoid putting your name on Group B ads, you will need to know or not disclose Group A’s future intentions.
Americans have the right to donate for political reasons without being associated with every group that intersects with this issue. This is important in our current climate, where citizens are often targeted and harassed for their opinions. San Francisco law adds to the danger by letting people have a potential backlash for speech they have nothing to do with.
More laws, such as these silent rhetoric, create confusion, and discourage individuals from contributing to the groups they might support. San Francisco is not alone in enforcing the rules for misleading political ads. In Massachusetts, group executives must read texts while in front of the camera, which can lead to viewers becoming biased over his or her appearance.
The government should not force citizens to jump through arbitrary hoops. Officials should keep all disclaimers clear and short to avoid discouraging speech and misleading voters. A traditional “paid” disclaimer can do the trick, while disclaimers that make it impossible to talk should be nullified or revoked. Those who want to put the words in the mouths of the electorate should work in the movies rather than the government.
Tiffany Donnelly is Director of Media at the Institute for Freedom of Expression.
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