Commentary: There is a cost for free speech

Rep. Rob Sampson (R-Southington, Wolcott)

Rep. Rob Sampson (R-Southington, Wolcott)

You may have seen some articles in the press recently regarding my refusal to accept an offer of settlement presented to me by the State Election Enforcement Commission (SEEC). The proposed settlement is in regard to a complaint brought by my opponent concerning references I made to Gov. Dannel Malloy’s policies during the 2014 election cycle.  I was one of a dozen or more Republican legislators who received nearly identical complaints brought in a clearly concerted effort by friends of the Governor’s administration.

Back on Oct. 17, 2014, two weeks before Election Day, the SEEC issued an advisory opinion intended to dissuade Republican candidates for State Representative and State Senate from referring to Malloy’s atrocious record as part of their campaigns.  Note that this late date means that most campaigns, including my own, had already designed and printed the majority of their campaign mail before the advisory opinion was even issued.

Sen. Joe Markley and I were only two of the lucky candidates who ended up with complaints filed against us because we did just that. I published campaign mailings that stated such things as:

“Rob has fought Governor Malloy’s ‘Bad for Connecticut Agenda’, opposing Huge Increases in Government Spending, the Highest Tax Increase in Connecticut History, the New Britain to Hartford Busway, the Repeal of the Death Penalty, and the Early Release of Violent Criminals.” and “Sampson has been a clear and consistent voice for common sense in Hartford, fighting Governor Malloy’s destructive policies of wasteful spending and high taxes.”

Now almost two years later, The SEEC has come back asking us to sign a consent order admitting that we have violated election law because we have allegedly campaigned against someone who is not our direct opponent. There would be no fine and no penalty—just an admission of our guilt and a promise to comply.

I have refused to sign on to this settlement with the SEEC.  For me, this is a clear violation of my First Amendment rights, and an overt restriction on free speech.  The government should not be able to restrict the issues we campaign about in a free election.

It’s simply impossible to discuss the political landscape in Connecticut—to offer my perspective—without mentioning Malloy, whose policy agenda has undeniably taken us down a rocky path. The view that the governor and his policies are irrelevant to the office of State Representative or State Senator is absurd on its face.

What the SEEC is saying is essentially that I cannot comment on Malloy’s policies or criticize him because he is also a candidate.  Clearly, we debate the governor’s proposals, budgets and actions as a matter of course, and to restrict candidates from informing voters how they feel about those issues is a profound injustice. That’s part of the political dialogue the Citizen’s Election Fund is supposed to foster, not forbid.  Malloy’s policies are at the very heart of the policy discussion, debate and votes that I am involved with on a daily basis in the discharge of my duties as an elected legislator.  Yet the SEEC would gag me0 on commenting on these things?

Adding to the absurdity is that in years that Malloy is not on the ballot, we are free to make reference to him and his policies in our campaign materials.  Does the SEEC believe that political speech permitted one year may be forbidden in another? I cannot imagine a first amendment restriction more capricious and vulnerable to challenge, profoundly limiting a candidate’s ability to communicate.  This is a bizarre and uneven standard.

The truth is that I didn’t mention Malloy in my campaign mail to hurt his campaign or benefit the other candidate.   I did it solely to make my own positions known to the voters in my district.   I continue to believe Malloy’s policies are dangerous to the future prosperity of our state, and I refuse to follow some preposterous policy designed for the purpose of insulating him from my criticism.

Many have asked me why I just don’t sign the consent order if there is no penalty.   It’s true, I could have done just that and this issue would likely have never made the news.  However, I feel that this whole thing is unseemly and unjust and I am not prepared to let it go unchallenged.

This simply cannot stand and become the law in our state.  Candidates for public office need to be able to campaign openly and freely and to make their opinions known to voters. As Sen. Markley stated in our press release “I’m not inclined to let bureaucrats extend the law by creating precedent that we let go unchallenged.”

Since this happened, I am pleased to report that we have had nearly universal approval of our stance from constituents, the press, and passersby.   The Waterbury Rep-Am newspaper even made a point to say “Meanwhile, Sen. Markley and Rep. Sampson deserve public support for their stance on freedom of speech.”

Not so ironically, Malloy and some state Democrats have been caught flouting sensible campaign law, and stand accused of illegally funneling campaign cash from federal campaign accounts that state contractors have donated to into the governor’s 2014 campaign effort.  The issue has moved from the SEEC now to the FBI, and a grand jury in New Haven is currently deposing high ranking Democrats in an effort to get to the bottom of it.

Rob Sampson is a state representative for the 80th district.

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