‘Muzzling Political Candidates’ | Rep-Am Editorial (9/24/2023)

September 25, 2023

Editorial as published by the Republican American:


It’s one of those court cases that never seems to go away. Fully nine years ago, then-state Rep. Robert C. Sampson, R-Wolcott, and then-state Sen. Joseph C. Markley, R-16th District, committed a faux pas. Having accepted campaign money from the state’s Citizens’ Election Program (CEP), then violated an agreement they had signed to refer only to their respective opponents in any paid advertising supported by CEP grants. That is, they targeted then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who was seeking re-election, in some of their advertising.


They’ve been battling the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) and the state attorney general’s office since then on First Amendment grounds. Sept. 14, the case went before the state Supreme Court. “From the beginning, Markley and Sampson have been arguing that any prohibitions restricting candidates for the General Assembly from referencing a sitting governor or a chief executive’s policies violates the First Amendment,” the Republican-American reported Sept. 13.


We’re of two minds on this conflict. On the one hand, the two lawmakers should have honored the agreement they signed — or declined to accept the CEP money under a restriction they considered onerous. On the other hand, the restriction seems to be an obvious free-speech violation and therefore never should have been imposed. Messrs. Markley and Sampson might reasonably have concluded they couldn’t credibly seek removal of the restriction unless they could demonstrate they were injured by it. And indeed, the SEEC fined them $2,000 and $5,000, respectively.


Complicating the issue is the fact the SEEC offered to remove the injury by waiving the fines — if the two lawmakers conceded they were wrong to use CEP money to campaign, in effect, against Gov. Malloy, rather than against their actual opponents in the 2014 election.


We’ve never been fans of the CEP and long have entertained doubts that it ever accomplished its supporters’ stated objective — bringing more, and more diverse, candidates into the mix.


Rather, it’s payola for incumbent lawmakers. This point was proved in 2010, when a powerful Democratic senator, Edith Prague of Columbia, called for mothballing the CEP during a fiscal crisis. Sen. Prague’s sensible suggestion went nowhere.


Notwithstanding the best efforts of Messrs. Markley and Sampson, payola will keep flowing from the CEP after the Supreme Court has its way with their case. But if the First Amendment argument finds receptive ears among the justices, at least candidates won’t be muzzled, as they are now — and the program will be a smidgen less wasteful and toxic. It may even bring the CEP within shouting distance of constitutional free-speech principles.