by Daniel Shuchman
Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1943 oil painting,“Freedom of Speech,” depicts a defining American scene: a seemingly average man mustering the courage to express publicly his opinion at what appears to be a New England town hall meeting. As memorably described by Bruce Cole, art historian and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities:
"Rockwell focuses attention on the standing speaker whose age, worn and stained jacket, rough hands with dirty fingernails, and plaid shirt set him apart from the neat coats, ties and white shirts of the older men in the audience. Although he is a working man, this figure, his face reminiscent of Lincoln’s, is unafraid to voice his opinion—which we suspect is contrary to that of the others in the room. Standing tall, his mouth open, his shining eyes transfixed, he speaks his mind, untrammeled and unafraid. In Rockwell’s vision he has become not only an active public participant in democracy, but a defender of it. He is the very embodiment of free speech, a living manifestation of that abstract right…."
In modern America, however, it appears the man in Rockwell’s painting might be advised to be very careful what he says, how he says it, and to whom he says it at the town hall. A few wrong moves and one of the townspeople wearing ties might report him to the local election commission. He might be required to register as a Political Action Committee and make filings with the state. He could face significant administrative expenses, and need to hire a financial staff. Indeed, it would probably be best if he brought an attorney with him to the meeting, lest he run afoul of the rules regarding political speech and advocacy.
While this may sound hyperbolic if not downright absurd in America, it is the inescapable conclusion one reaches in reading the petition papers filed recently with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Edmund Corsi & Geauga Constitutional Council v. Ohio Elections Commission.
According to lower court rulings in Ohio and the findings of the Ohio Elections Commission, it seems that Mr. Corsi, a resident of Geauga County near Cleveland, believes “that most elected officials ignore the constitution and, as a result, he is concerned that he will lose his freedoms in this country.” Mr. Corsi wrote and distributed pamphlets and formed a website under the name of the Geauga Constitutional Council (GCC) to express his views. He never formally incorporated the GCC, and it seems to have largely acted as a pseudonym. He paid $40 a month to maintain his website and held informational events at which he provided food and for which he sometimes charged a small entrance fee. Mr. Corsi estimated that he spent a “couple hundred dollars” publishing his pamphlets.
Mr. Corsi got in trouble when he hosted, under the name of the GCC, a booth at the Geauga County Fair, where he handed out brochures. He was ratted out by a member of the local board of elections who was also in attendance at the fair. This commissar (who is also a local Republican party official and had been the object of critical blog postings by Mr. Corsi) discovered that the brochures did not contain the disclaimers required of political action committees under Ohio election law. He later found a further threat to public safety: the GCC had not designated a treasurer and had made no filings with the county board of elections.