AUSTIN, Texas A state ban on anonymous political ads is unconstitutional because it violates free speech, a state appeals court in Dallas has ruled.
“Freedom of speech includes the right to engage in the dissemination of ideas without being publicly identified,” Justice Joseph Morris wrote in the 2-1 ruling joined by Justice Michael O’Neill.
Unless overturned on appeal, the ruling in Texas v. John Doe opens the door to legally publishing and broadcasting political attacks on candidates and officeholders without identifying the attacker.
Suzy Woodford, executive director of Common Cause of Texas, said the ruling would deprive the public of its right to know who is trying to influence elections.
“This decision has just set back finance disclosure laws in Texas by about 100 years,” Woodford said in yesterday’s editions of the Austin American-Statesman.
Steve Tokoly, an assistant district attorney for Dallas, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Dallas district attorney had brought a misdemeanor charge against “John Doe,” who was accused of anonymously publishing a flier that harshly criticized former Dallas City Council Member Steve Salazar during his 1997 re-election campaign.
Doe had paid a company to distribute a bulk mailing about 1,000 copies of a flier that described Salazar’s as a “puppet who can’t tell the truth.”
Salazar won re-election in 1997 despite the flier but was defeated this year.
After that election, the Dallas County district attorney filed a Class A misdemeanor charge against Doe for allegedly violating the Texas Election Code by failing to include his name and address in the flier.
The Election Code says that anyone who arranges for “the printing, publication or broadcasting of a political advertisement must identify himself or the person he represents within the advertisement.”
The trial court ruled that the ban on anonymous ads violated free-speech rights, and on Oct. 16, the Dallas appeals court agreed. The appeals court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which said it was unconstitutional to bar an individual from putting out anonymous political speech using only his or her own resources.
The Dallas appeals court said the state’s interests in avoiding corruption and other problems in elections and election campaigns would be protected by campaign-finance disclosure laws.
In a dissent, Justice Sue Lagarde said corporate interests could hide their identities behind an anonymous individual who arranges to purchase advertising.