Lawsuit Says Utah Law Violates the First Amendment

The Center for Competitive Politics announced today that it has filed a lawsuit to declare unconstitutional a recent Utah law requiring nonprofits that engage in advocacy to report the private information of their supporters to the government. CCP is representing three plaintiffs in the case: the Utah Taxpayers Association, the Utah Taxpayers Legal Foundation, and the Libertas Institute.


The lawsuit challenges Utah House Bill 43, which passed in 2013. Plaintiffs allege the law suffers many of the same defects contained in the Federal Election Campaign Act. That law’s reach was limited by the landmark 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo.  

The key defect in the Utah law is that it attempts to regulate any speech “to influence or tend to influence, directly or indirectly” any vote.

“Many forms of speech on legislative or policy issues may indirectly influence how some person might vote but, under this law, it is far from clear what speech would trigger regulated activity and what would not,” said Allen Dickerson, CCP Legal Director and the lead attorney in the lawsuit. “Given the breathtaking scope of this provision, it greatly chills speech about any public policy matter and is clearly unconstitutional under the First Amendment.”

“Our judicial challenge comes from the need to gain clarity on all nonprofits that engage in a limited amount of political activity and whether they will be forced to disclose their donors”, said Billy Hesterman, Vice President of the Utah Taxpayers Association. “We feel this violates an individual’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association and would have a chilling effect on Utah’s nonprofit and charitable organizations. We believe the courts will view this the same way.” 

“Free speech and association are fundamental aspects of what it means to be an American-and Utahn,” said Connor Boyack, President of Libertas Institute. “They should not be undermined because of rogue political consultants and reactionary legislatures. We look forward to the judicial scrutiny this lawsuit will bring and are hopeful that this problematic law will be declared unconstitutional.” 

The law’s impact is worsened as any speech costing more than $750 in a year could trigger burdensome filing requirements similar to those required for candidates for office, mandating detailed disclosure of donors who give just over $50.

For example, if the issue of abortion were to become the focus of discussion in Utah’s upcoming Governor’s race, or in a future ballot initiative, groups like Utah’s Planned Parenthood or Right to Life chapters could be forced to disclose their donors and register with the state because they disseminate information about abortion policy on their website, even if they don’t explicitly seek to engage on the issue in the context of an election or even mention a candidate’s name.

“Utah’s House Bill 43 has already had a chilling effect on free speech in Utah, which is exactly why we are representing these organizations in federal court,” Dickerson added. “Utah’s law is so overbroad that our clients are concerned that participating in any public debate could destroy the privacy of their donors, many of whom would stop making donations as a result. This isn’t about regulating speech urging voters to support or oppose a candidate or ballot issue. It’s about the First Amendment right to privacy of association and belief.”

To read a detailed brief on CCP’s case, click here.

To read the federal complaint filed by CCP, click here.