Paul Jacob

Doug Guetzloe is a threat. Since threats must be confronted, contained, or extinguished, people like Guetzloe must be locked away from law-abiding folk.

That, I guess, is the reasoning behind why Mr. Guetzloe was sentenced to jail.

But Guetzloe (pronounced “get-slow”), an Orlando, Florida, anti-tax activist and talk show host, is not a thief, a rapist or a murderer. He doesn’t appear to be any physical or financial threat to you or me, nor to most of his fellow Sunshine Staters.

He is, however, a threat to certain Florida politicians.

In 2006, Citizen Guetzloe premeditatedly communicated with thousands of his fellow citizens by mailing a police report involving David C. Strong, then a candidate for mayor, to approximately 4,000 Winter Park residents. The mailing contained some additional editorial comment, but there was no call to vote for or against any candidate — not that that should matter, of course.

The police report detailed a 1999 criminal complaint against Strong for battery. Apparently upset over his neighbor’s dog defecating in his yard, Strong invited the dog’s owner across the street, picked up the feces and smeared it on his neighbor. (This is the sort of person who seeks a leadership position in government?)

Strong won the election, of course, though no doubt by a thinner margin than he would have had residents not learned about the incident. As for his criminal case, Strong hardly got a slap on the wrist, having to perform 40 hours of community service, take anger management classes, have no contact with the victim, pay supervision costs, and be evaluated for substance abuse.

On the other hand, for having the temerity to distribute a public report publicly, a document that every citizen has a right to view, State Attorney Lawson Lamar charged Guetzloe with 14 counts of violating Florida’s campaign finance laws, which require a disclaimer — “Paid electioneering communication paid for by (Name and address of person paying for the communication)” — on any electioneering communication.

Believing he would pay a small fine and ultimately not even have a conviction on his record, Guetzloe pled “no contest.” Instead, Judge C. Jeffrey Arnold sentenced him to 60 days in jail, $8,500 in fines, and three years supervised probation. All for the crime of spreading around his opinion without following all the byzantine rules and regulations enacted into law by incumbent politicians.

Frankly, it could have been worse. Guetzloe was charged with 14 counts, but could have been charged with 4,000 — one for each recipient of the “un-disclaimed” material. The maximum penalty for each misdemeanor offense is one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. So, perhaps Guetzloe is lucky he’s not spending the rest of his life in prison . . . or 4,000 years, whichever might come first.

Candidates and groups with money and power seem able to navigate campaign finance laws well enough. Money rents the lawyers and accountants; power buys the special favors. And, with enough money, those big fines don’t seem so big.

But not so for the rest of us. Not so for Doug Guetzloe. He’s already spent more than $100,000 in his defense.

Guetzloe appealed his conviction on constitutional grounds, that the law violated his First Amendment rights, and argued that the 14 charges should lawfully only be one, since it was one mailing, not 14.

Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals threw out 13 of the charges, agreeing that if there were a crime, it was just one crime — not 14 or 4,000. But while the appeals court vacated Guetzloe’s sentence and remanded the case back to the local court for re-sentencing, it upheld the law requiring that each mailpiece carry a disclaimer as a “paid electioneering communication.”

Guetzloe has now appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. The justices should grab the case, strike down Florida’s anti-speech regulations and free Mr. Guetzloe from the government threat still hovering over his head.

On the constitutional matter, the U.S. Supreme Court seemed clear enough in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), the case of an Ohio woman fined for distributing anonymous fliers at a school board meeting, after a school official filed a complaint:

Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation — and their ideas from suppression — at the hand of an intolerant society.

Guetzloe is not popular. With some. That is, he has plenty of enemies.

Yet, arguably, he and his Ax the Tax organization are responsible for defeating $25 billion in tax increases through the years, including a recent local attempt to hike taxes $8.8 billion. That can make a man unpopular with powerful officials.

Though, doesn’t it sort of show he must be a lot more popular with voters?

Having battled in politics and public relations for the last 30 years, Guetzloe’s certainly no newcomer to controversy. He told me he has “a defective gene” inherited from an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. Because of this gene, he says, “I’d rather grab a musket than have tea at 4:00 pm.”

But the issue isn’t whether we like Guetzloe or his message. The issue is whether he — and we — will possess the most basic freedom of speech. Or be silenced by threats.

The speech regulators no longer engage in mere civil harassment: now they apply the handcuffs and iron bars.

If we let the jail door slam shut on Doug Guetzloe, who will be next?


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.