FILE - Campaign petition drive ballot initiative

An anti-bailout coalition made arguments in court Friday that their First Amendment rights are being violated by an Ohio regulation that requires them to disclose information about their petition circulators.

If the necessary signatures are gathered, the petition would place a referendum on the November 2020 ballot to end a $1 billion nuclear energy bailout. The bailout is paid for with higher rates on consumers.

The group, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, is suing the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to force a change in the law. Those engaged in circulating a petition for a ballot initiative are required to fill out a Form 15, which makes their name, address, phone number and email account accessible to the public. Opponents of a proposal are not required to disclose this information.

Gene Pierce, a spokesperson for the coalition, told The Center Square via email that this is a content-based restriction against their free speech rights, which is unconstitutional. He alleged that opponents of their petition have accessed this information to harass petition circulators.

“As a practical matter, Form 15s have been used as a ‘headhunting’ list by opponents to harass, bully and bribe / buy out petitioners away from working on our campaign,” Pierce said. “We submitted affidavits of several text messages and phone calls from our opponents offering $2,500 and a plane ticket to anyone who would quit our campaign and leave Ohio. This is another restraint on free speech.”

The secretary of state’s office is currently investigating alleged harassment from petition opponents, which include one allegation of assault.

The secretary of state’s office did not answer questions from The Center Square, but rather said to contact the attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ohioans for Energy Security, a group that was formed to prevent the initiative from going on the ballot, said this is a desperate attempt to buy extra time to gather signatures.

“This endless stream of desperate and unsubstantiated allegations by our opponents is outrageous,” Carlo LoParo, a spokesperson for Ohioans for Energy Security, told The Center Square via email.

“They’re looking for a scapegoat because they can't convince enough Ohioans to sign their petition. Ohioans for Energy Security has followed the law and will continue to exercise its First Amendment rights," LoParo said.

The judge is expected to quickly decide whether the case will move forward. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts is on a tight deadline to gather signatures for their petition. Pierce said to expect another filing Tuesday from the group’s lawyers about the summary language drafting process, which he said took 38 days away from the 90 days allotted to circulate petitions.

Pierce did not say whether the group was behind on its numbers for petition signatures.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and Ohio for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.