ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Recognizing the urgency of the case, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara today said he would issue a written ruling soon regarding a lawsuit charging that a “gag order” provision in Public Act 269 is unconstitutional and asking that the law be overturned.
Judge O’Meara heard oral arguments from both sides Thursday morning. Jerome R. Watson spoke as one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs – 17 local government officials and one private citizen. Defendants in the case are Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and the State of Michigan.
“The heart of this case is not about misusing public funds. This case is about abusing First Amendment rights. This case is all about censorship of speech,” said Watson, of the Miller Canfield law firm, during the hearing at the U.S. District Court, Federal Building in Ann Arbor.
Calling it an “important case,” Judge O’Meara said he hoped to issue a decision soon on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. The case is regarding Subsection 57(3) of Public Act 269, which amended Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act. State law already prohibits governmental officials from using tax dollars to advocate for or against a proposal. This new provision goes far beyond what is constitutionally permissible.
Specifically, subsection 57(3) bans local officials or employees of local governments and school districts from using public resources to communicate with voters by giving them factual information about a ballot measure through radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded telephone messages within 60 days of the election.
There is urgency to this case because more than 100 school districts and local governments have issues on the March 8 ballot and already are being affected by the 60-day gag order time period.
The case is Robert Taylor et al v. Ruth Johnson and the State of Michigan. It was filed Jan. 26 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, based in Detroit.
Lawsuit plaintiffs include Michigan Municipal League members Roseville Mayor Robert Taylor, Algonac City Manager Douglas R. Alexander, and Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons. Other plaintiffs are Tuscola County Commissioner Matthew Bierlein; New Haven Community Schools Superintendent Todd R. Robinson; Riverview Community Schools School Board President Gary O’Brien and Superintendent Russell Pickell; Tecumseh School Board President Kimberly Amstutz-Wild and Superintendent Gary O’Brien; Waterford School District School Board President Robert Seeterlin and Superintendent Keith Wunderlich; Goodrich Area Schools Superintendent Michelle Imbrunone; Clinton Community Schools Superintendent David P. Pray; Byron Area Schools School Board President Amy Lawrence and Superintendent Patricia Murphy-Alderman; Warren Consolidated School District Superintendent Robert D. Livernois; Lansing School District Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul; and Stephen Purchase, a private citizen.
Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at 810-874-1073.