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New ad disclaimers silence activists

New ad disclaimers silence activists
© Greg Nash

Can the government set words in your mouth? The Constitution says no, but some officials say yes. Their scheme turns political ad disclaimer laws into something vastly different. Once the matter of identifying yourself to viewers, Americans now often face impossible rules when speaking about an election on radio or television, for newspapers, and online.

Ad disclaimers are meant to tell viewers or listeners who is attempting to persuade them. But even traditional disclaimer rules could raise concerns because they compel speakers to voice a government message. Throwing caution to the wind, however, states and localities are mandating lengthy and confusing disclaimers that run over the First Amendment.

Just ask San Francisco activist Todd David. He formed the group Yes on Prop B to support a ballot initiative on disaster preparation. But city law made it nearly impossible for it to run ads by forcing it to carry a lengthy disclaimer for 28 seconds. David, who is challenging such law with help from the Institute for Free Speech, asked, “How are groups supposed to communicate with voters if ads are eaten up by a disclaimer?”

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When disclaimers consume such large portions of ads, it becomes more costly to communicate with voters. The smallest and cheapest forms of advertising become impossible and impractical to use, harming several groups with less cash. What might seem like a minor inconvenience can effectively silence the political messages of numerous groups.

Adding insult to injury, states and localities often mandate ads to include redundant and misleading information, such as the names of donors. The government usurping the speech of citizens is bad enough. Forcing them to display the names of donors that are already available in public records and saddling them with another financial burden takes the cake.

There is no rationale for this. Disclaimer laws that force groups to provide redundant information on donors could leave viewers more overwhelmed than informed. San Francisco mandates campaign advertisers to disclose more than a dozen separate contributors, including individuals who have never given to the group buying the ad. In what world would identifying people who have nothing to do with an ad really assist voters?

If you give to Group A, then Group A gives to Group B, why is your name plastered on ads of Group B? You likely had no way of knowing Group A would give to Group B, which might not have even existed at the time of your donation. To avoid having your name on ads of Group B, you would have to know the future intentions of Group A or not give at all.

Americans have the right to donate to political causes without being tied to every group that ever intersects with that cause. This is important with our current climate, in which citizens are often targeted and harassed for their views. The San Francisco law adds to the danger by leaving people to potential backlash over speech they have nothing to do with.

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More laws like these silence speech, create confusion, and discourage individuals from contributing for groups they would otherwise support. San Francisco is not alone in mandating misguided political ad rules. In Massachusetts, the chief executive officers of groups must read scripts while on camera, which can bias viewers over his or her looks.

The government must 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 for by” disclaimer could do the trick, while disclaimers that make it impossible to speak should be repealed or struck down. Those who want to set words into the mouths of voters should work in the movies rather than the government.

Tiffany Donnelly is the media manager at the Institute for Free Speech.