Federal Court: SB 47 Restrictions on Petition Circulation Unconstitutional

Columbus, OH – A federal court enjoined the state from enforcing Senate Bill 47’s new limits on Ohioans’ Initiative and Referendum rights. Specifically, the Court held that Ohio’s new ban on Ohioans contracting with non-Ohioans to circulate initiative petitions violates Ohioans’ First Amendment Rights.

The ruling, made by Judge Watson of the Columbus division of the Southern District of Ohio, paves the way for Ohioans advancing the Workplace Freedom Amendment and other freedom-oriented ballot issues to resume association and contracts with professional out-of-state signature gatherers.

The legal action was filed on behalf of Ohioans for Workplace Freedom and Cincinnati for Pension Reform. OWF is currently gathering signatures to place a right-to-work amendment before voters; and CPR incurred significant additional last-minute costs attempting to utilize only in-state petitioners.

In his 27 page decision, Judge Watson, explained that “petition circulation – whether for candidates or issues – constitutes core political speech protected by the First Amendment,” and “laws prohibiting nonresidents from acting as petition circulators significantly burden political speech because they substantially reduce the number of petition circulators and are therefore subject to strict scrutiny.”

The Order concluded as follows: “The Court holds that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that R.C. 3503.06(C)(1)(a) violates the First Amendment because it substantially burdens core political speech and is not narrowly tailored to serve Ohio’s compelling interest in curbing fraud in the election process.”

The lawsuit sought to restore Ohioans freedom to contract or associate with any and all American citizens to convey their message and advance their issue to the ballot. The lawsuit further seeks to invalidate the prohibition, applicable only to those associated with the issue, on gathering signatures during certain critical periods.

“We’re grateful for the Court’s thorough ruling. This Act is a set of back-door tactics to effectively eliminate initiative and referendum in Ohio, by eliminating many of those who do the actual work of gathering signatures on important issues” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“Initiative and referendum supply an important check on arbitrary government, and also supply citizens with the opportunity to act as civic adults – – taking the lawmaking power into their own hands rather than begging the legislature for change.”

The only attempt at using exclusively in-state circulators since the new statute’s enactment, a referendum effort on behalf of internet sweepstakes businesses, had failed dramatically, with less than 37 percent of submitted signatures found to be valid.

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OLC Editors Note: You can donate to the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law at http://www.OhioConstitution.org