HELENA — A conservative political group filed suit Monday to invalidate Montana’s “clean campaign act,” saying its requirement to notify candidates of election mailers criticizing them violates the U.S. Constitution.
Montana Citizens for Right to Work, based in Bozeman, sued state Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, who’s been preparing to penalize the group for allegedly violating the law in the days before the 2020 campaign, the lawsuit said.
“This bizarre law violates both the First Amendment and the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” said the lawsuit filed in federal court in Helena.
The suit asked a federal judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional and prohibit Mangan from prosecuting the right-to-work group.
Mangan said Monday he’d not yet seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.
The suit said Mangan told the group last month it could pay $8,000 in fines or that he could pursue them in state District Court for at penalties of at least $20,000.
"The $20,000 penalty the state is seeking to extract from Montana Citizens for Right to Work for criticizing legislators is absurd, even by Montana’s anti-free speech standards," said Matthew Monforton, an attorney representing the group.
Mangan said any such discussions are normal in the course of his office attempting to settle a case where he’s found that a violation likely occurred.
The lawsuit goes after a 14-year-old state law that says if any candidate or political committee uses advertising or mailers to mention a candidate within 10 days of the election, it must notify them at the time the material is disseminated to the public.
However, candidates don’t have to be notified if they are “mentioned in the context of endorsements.”
Montana Citizens for Right to Work says it sent mailers to thousands of Montana voters last Oct. 28, or six days before the Nov. 3 general election. It did not provide advance notice to the candidates referenced in the mailers.
The group had surveyed multiple candidates for the 2021 state Legislature on whether they supported “right to work” laws, which make it more difficult for labor unions to collect union fees from workers.
The mailers referred to the results of this survey. They did not endorse any candidates, but cast those who opposed right-to-work laws or didn’t answer the surveys in a negative light, while complimenting those who said they would opposed “forced unionism.”
The law essentially requires Montana Citizens for Right to Work or any other group to notify candidates about the mailer before voters even receive it, the lawsuit said, but not if the candidate is mentioned “in the context of endorsements.”
The law therefore burdens campaign speech that only does not endorse a candidate, unconstitutionally discriminating against speech based on its content, the suit said.
“The state of Montana has no compelling interest, or even an important interest, in discriminating against speech about candidates based on viewpoint,” it said.