Billboards promoting Allan Fung’s candidacy may or may not violate campaign finance law, but Joe Trillo’s formal complaint about them raises questions that Rhode Islanders really should consider:
According to Trillo’s campaign, Fung is using several illuminated digital billboard signs in North Providence, which he did not report on his campaign finance reports.
“Allan Fung has been utilizing three corporate owned, illuminated digital billboard signs along major thoroughfares in North Providence, since December 3, 2017, but never officially reported paying for any such advertising on his past or present campaign finance reports. This is a violation of Rhode Island campaign finance laws, and yet another example of Allan Fung’s clear and intentional mismanagement of his campaign finances,” said Trillo.
Here is the current state of campaign finance law in the Ocean State, based on my own reading and experience dealing with the Board of Elections Campaign Finance Unit: If the candidate paid for the billboards, they would have to be listed as an expense on his reports. If the owners of the billboards put them up without consulting with the candidate, the candidate should report them as an in-kind contribution, and the owners should possibly file reports as if they are political action committees (PACs).
That last situation is patently unconstitutional. The state government of Rhode Island cannot regulate and limit residents’ free speech rights just because what they say supports a candidate for office. That is true no matter the motivation or whether the person asked the candidate for input before expressing his support publicly.
This same logic transfers directly to the candidate. If it falls under free speech rights to express support for another person, and it absolutely does, then it must fall under free speech rights to express support for one’s own candidacy.
In the abstract (although probably not under current law as adjudicated by the Supreme Court), one could possibly argue that states can regulate the money that people give to candidates and how they spend it, but restrictions on anything having to do with speech are clear infringements on our rights.