Judicial Watch Battles Ohio's Attempts to Restrict First Amendment

Judicial Watch Battles Ohio's Attempts to Restrict First Amendment

One way to tell if a law is genuinely needed to protect the public – as opposed to just an underhanded maneuver by politicians to protect themselves from the public – is to see to whom it applies and if politicians exempt themselves. Politicians in Ohio recently did just that, and Judicial Watch has entered the fray to protect individual liberty.

On March 10, Judicial Watch joined with the Allied Educational Foundation (AEF) in filing an amicus curiae brief in support of a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against an Ohio law preventing state initiative sponsors from recruiting out-of-state volunteers from gathering ballot initiative petition signatures. In November 2013, a federal court in Ohio granted a preliminary injunction to Citizens in Charge and other groups seeking the right to petition. The case is before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Eastern Division.

In our brief, we agreed with a prior court finding suggesting that the Ohio law violates the First Amendment. Then, we took it an important step further, arguing that the law also violates the Fourteenth Amendment “Privilege and Immunities” clause. “Even if the law did not violate the First Amendment rights of plaintiffs,” our brief states, “it violates a fundamental right of citizens of the several states to fully participate in policy advocacy anywhere in their country such debates take place.”

Specifically, the Judicial Watch and AEF brief argues the following:

1. The Privileges and Immunities Clause Protects all Americans’ Right to Circulate an Initiative Petition in Order to Protect Unpopular Viewpoints

Ohio’s law will limit participation in matters of public policy on precisely those issues which most need the help of out-of-state advocates. By their very nature, initiatives and referendums often advocate for positions that are unpopular with state government officials, as they frequently involve measures which elected representatives are unwilling to adopt themselves. Ohio’s citizens may support these initiatives, but may hesitate to become involved for fear of retribution by a government that opposed them. 

2. The Right to Participate in Initiatives as Circulators in the Several States is a Fundamental Right of All Citizens Which Bears Upon the Entire Nation

By discriminating against out-of-state citizens, Ohio’s law weakens direct democracy in the state, an issue “which bears upon the vitality of the nation as a single entity.” The right to direct democracy is essential to the preservation of vibrant democracies in the many states. The ability of states to function as “laboratories of democracy” is paramount to the health and vitality of the nation and its federal system.

The law prohibiting the use by in-state organizations of out-of-state petitioners, S.B. 47, was passed by the Ohio legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in June 2013. The law prohibits anyone except an Ohio resident from gathering signatures on a petition to place a ballot issue before voters. But, here’s the catch – and it is not just telltale; it is tell-all: The members of the General Assembly exempted themselves, and all other candidates, from the residency restriction.

This Ohio law unlawfully limits the right of the people to govern themselves through the initiative process. It intrudes on a fundamental right not often emphasized by politicians – the citizens’ right to place additional checks on the power of their elected representatives. Regardless of what chicanery Ohio lawmakers may attempt, the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from restricting the rights of American citizens to petition their government.

That’s why Citizens in Charge filed its lawsuit in September 2013. Now, Judicial Watch and our amicus partner, AEF (a charitable and educational foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life through education), are lending support.