Local officials sue to block law prohibiting ballot info

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LANSING, Mich. (AP/WXMI) — School and local government officials have filed a federal lawsuit to block a new Michigan law that restricts them from informing voters about ballot issues.

The complaint Tuesday against the state alleges the “gag order” law unconstitutionally infringes on free speech rights. Local officials are seeking an injunction so they can disseminate information before March 8 elections.

The new law, which amended Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act, prohibits elected and appointed public and school officials from providing information to voters about local ballot measures within 60 days of an election. State law already prohibits governmental officials from using tax dollars to advocate for or against a proposal.

More than 100 school districts and local governments will have issues on the March 8 ballot, according to attorneys who filed the suit.

“It’s an absolute gag order preventing public officials from addressing their constituents and residents about matters of local concern,” said Scott Eldridge, an attorney with Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone who has filed the lawsuit.

Eldridge said the “draconian” language in the law—which was added to the bill and quickly passed in the final hours of the Legislature’s 2015 session by majority Republicans with no explanation—violates both the 1st and the 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The Republican-backed law was signed this month by Gov. Rick Snyder, who urged lawmakers to follow up with clarifying legislation. The law prohibits public money or resources from being used to disseminate information about local ballot measures through TV and radio ads, mass mailings or robocalls in the 60 days before an election.

On Tuesday, Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, and Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, introduced legislation in a bid to clarify the law.

The amendments would make clear that local government or school district could share detailed and factual information like ballot language, relevant financial and tax information, and scheduled public meetings to discuss the ballot measure. The amendments also clarify radio and television advertisements, mailers and robocalls would be allowed within 30 days of an election, pending approval by the governing body.

“There has been a lot of confusion,” Hughes said in a release. “Registered voters should know what’s on the ballot and most of the time the only information is available through our local leadership. Local officials should be able to share unbiased information without concern.”

Horn said he supported the original bill firmly believing that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used for campaigning, but contends “we went too far.”

Local officials have argued there’s no compelling state interest to bar their communications with voters in an “objectively neutral manner.”

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