House Bill 1065 – Digital Communications in Elections – will create a new barrier to the freedom of speech in North Carolina.If passed as currently written (Edition 2), the bill would:
• insert “digital communications” in campaign finance laws (a new regulation);
• require reporting of electioneering communications that use digital communications (a new control on free speech);
• and require sponsor disclosure of advertisements made through digital communications (a new regulation on free speech).
North Carolina’s electioneering laws are already among the most stringent in the country and are much more strenuous than federal electioneering laws.
Requiring additional disclosure does nothing more than intimidate citizens and organizations from participating in the public debate process. Requiring disclosures of expenses and donations to the State Board of Elections will cause many citizens to opt out of participating in the public square on critical issues facing our state.
Further, the disclosure requirements are written so broadly that they would not only apply to “paid” political ads. The requirements could apply to any digital communication that an organization acquired an expense to maintain over time. An article or Facebook post thanking a legislator for a vote, outside of the “electioneering (or blackout) period,” would likely still be an active web article or post during the electioneering period. It is possible that this type of communication would require disclosure, and force an undue burden on free speech.
Some people are worried that money is being spent on criticizing or praising elected officials that is not being reported. However, that argument is untrue. The state lobbying laws already require organizations and lobbyists to report expenses over $3,000 to be reported in quarterly lobbying reports; and most electioneering communications are, in fact, issue advocacy.
Instead of finding new ways to regulate speech – even in times of elections – I would urge you to encourage more participation in policy debates and the electoral process. Find ways to roll back current regulations – perhaps conforming with federal law – instead of attempting to freeze speech through the intimidation of disclosure in government reports, and fear of legislative retribution.
Suggested action to the state House If the bill, as currently written, goes to a vote on the state House floor, then Civitas Action will grade the vote. Civitas Action urges a “no” vote on the bill.
It would be better for House Bill 1065 to be re-referred to a committee (i.e., Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House or Elections and Ethics Law) and amended to do the following:
• Transform the bill into study committee legislation to better understand the issue of electioneering communications and how digital communications play a part in that process; and
• Amend the timeframe within the definition of electioneering communications in General Statute 163A-1411 from 60 days to 30 days, to align with federal election timeframes.
Civitas Action is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that educates and informs North Carolinians on policy issues and the actions of their elected officials.