Texas rancher fights state over $1,300 fine for anti-Perry ad

Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 21, 2010 

A Parker County rancher frustrated with Gov. Rick Perry bought newspaper ads calling him "completely full of" something found in pastures.

What happened next?

The state of Texas fined the guy $1,300.

The newest poster star for liberty and free speech is rancher Billy Mitchell, whose land is near Annetta North.

Stung for years by Texas' gas pipeline rules, Mitchell bought the newspaper ads before the March Republican primary.

Mitchell is a Republican and a former delegate to the state convention.

He's one of the 49 percent of Republicans who voted for someone besides Perry.

Now, Mitchell is considering starting a Republicans for Bill White committee.

But first, he'll have to deal with this little fine from Austin.

After Mitchell bought his ads — $2,700 worth in Parker County newspapers and the Fort Worth Weekly — a caller asked whether he filed campaign paperwork.

Turns out, if you spend more than $100 on any particular state or local election — even to publish or broadcast your own opinion — you fall under the rules of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Mitchell's ad included the required disclosure "Political ad paid for by Billy Mitchell." He called the ethics commission to ask whether he needed to file more paperwork.

They told him yes.

They also told him he was eight days late.

"I said, 'What about my freedom of speech?'" Mitchell, 52, said Wednesday.

"They told me, 'You have to fill out our documents before you get your freedom of speech.'"

He's more upset at the bureaucracy than the fine. He said he intends to protest to the commission.

"I'd say it's pretty unethical to tell someone they have to fill out a government document to speak out," he said.

Ethics Commission spokesman Tim Sorrells said many Texans buy campaign ads and comply with the 1987 law.

Texas Wesleyan School of Law professor Lynne Rambo said the rule likely withstood the U.S. Supreme Court's January decision overturning other campaign limits.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the government cannot fine citizens for "simply engaging in political speech." But laws requiring reports and disclosure have been upheld, Rambo said.

"I think it's particularly inappropriate to enforce this when someone discloses that they paid for their own ad," she said.

Mitchell also spent money to put up anti-eminent-domain billboards in Tarrant and Parker counties.

He's leaving his Web site up: www.billymitchellsworld.com.

"My loyalty is to the people of Texas, and the people are getting a raw deal in Austin," he said.

He approved that message.

Read more of Bud Kennedy's columns at Star-Telegram.com

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