Lawsuit challenging the regulation of campaign speech dismissed

Monday, February 11, 2013

A U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit against the county attorney’s office, brought by two men who had never had any dealings with the office. The lawsuit sought to overturn a long-standing law that prohibits making knowingly false statements in campaign material.
 U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery granted summary judgment to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson on Jan. 25, following a Nov. 8 hearing.

“This is a huge win for the office,” said Civil Division Managing Attorney Dan Rogan, who argued the case with Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Beth Stack. Had they lost the case, it would have meant that citizens could not complain to anyone about campaign materials because the state would have been prohibited from regulating any campaign speech, even blatantly false statements.

The case was brought by Ron Stoffel and Joel Brude on behalf of themselves and their grassroots organizations which oppose school referenda. Victor Niska, a third plaintiff, died before the case was heard by the court. The two men argued that a Minnesota law against knowingly putting out false information in opposition to a ballot question was unconstitutional.  Niska had campaigned against a school bond referendum in the Howard Lake, Waverly-Winsted School District. Stoffel campaigned against a Robbinsdale School District ballot initiative.

While neither school district was happy with the information the groups put out in the two campaigns in 2006 and 2007, nobody complained to the county attorneys. But the men, including Brude of Citizens for Quality Education, said they want to be active in future campaigns, but the provision of the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act will have a chilling effect on their participation because their campaign statements “will be interpreted” as false or misleading.

However, in granting the request from Arneson and Freeman for summary judgment, Judge Montgomery indicated that the law was well-crafted and would not hinder anyone from making arguments in a political campaign.

“Over a century ago, the Minnesota legislature implemented minimal, narrow restrictions against knowingly false speech about political candidates in an effort to protect the debates between honestly held beliefs that are at the core of the First Amendment,” she wrote. “For nearly a quarter of a century, these restrictions have also applied to statements regarding ballot initiatives. The ballot provisions in Minn. Stat. 211B.06 reflect a legislative judgment on behalf of Minnesota citizens to guard against the malicious manipulation of the political process. The Court finds that the provisions at issue are narrowly tailored to serve this compelling interest.”