Maine Court Rules State Municipal Association May Lobby
A U.S. district court judge ruled the Maine Municipal Association was allowed to take a side on a public policy issue and participate in several political campaigns.
Citing the “government speech doctrine,” a U.S. district court judge ruled last week that the Maine Municipal Association may participate in political advocacy campaigns.
The ruling comes in a 2010 lawsuit in which the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, sued MMA for what it claimed were constitutional violations when MMA opposed five statewide ballot measures between 2004 and 2009, the Bangor Daily News reported. The center argued that as a government entity, MMA may not engage in political advocacy, that it violated others’ speech rights, and that it illegally spent taxpayer money for partisan purposes.
In a 56-page ruling, Judge John Woodcock cited the government speech doctrine, which holds that government entities are protected by the First Amendment. “The court holds that the government speech doctrine applies to MMA’s advocacy activities,” Woodcock wrote. “This is another way of saying that MMA has not violated the plaintiffs’ rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
MMA, a nonpartisan membership organization representing 486 Maine municipalities, quickly praised the ruling.
“We at MMA believe in the concept that issues-oriented debates should involve a true ‘marketplace of ideas’—which Judge Woodcock cited several times in today’s ruling—meaning it [is] important for citizens to know how initiatives would affect municipal services before they cast their votes,” MMA Executive Director Christopher Lockwood said in a statement. The ballot initiatives at issue in the case aimed to limit taxes in the state.
The association’s director of state and federal relations, Geoffrey Herman, echoed Lockwood’s approval, saying MMA was created 76 years ago to advocate for its members.
“We can’t sit idle while proposals with serious ramifications for Maine’s towns and cities are brought before the legislature, nor can we watch from the sidelines when equally significant proposals are brought before the state electorate for adoption through citizen initiative,” Herman said. “It goes to our core function, and we are glad that our capacity to perform that function has been affirmed with this decision.”
Despite the victory, the ruling is considered narrow, and as Woodcock wrote, “the court’s conclusion that the government speech doctrine applies does not mean that the plaintiffs have no good claims against MMA, nor does it mean that the court endorses or does not endorse MMA’s advocacy activities as a matter of policy. The court holds only that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not reach the conduct the plaintiffs complain of.”
David Crocker, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, told the Bangor Daily News that Woodcock’s ruling will do a lot to aid the center’s case when the ruling is appealed.
“He pretty much said the MMA is an arm of the government,” Cocker said. “I wouldn’t be popping the champagne corks, not by a long shot.”