ST. LOUIS (CN) – Three Minnesota grassroots groups do have standing to sue state government officials over a law that makes it a crime to lie about proposed ballot initiatives, the 8th Circuit ruled.
W.I.S.E. Citizen Committee, 281 Care Committee, Citizens for Quality Education and two individuals claim a provision of the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act violates their First Amendment right by inhibiting their ability to speak freely against school-funding ballot initiatives.
The act makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to use information that the person knows is false when they are participating in the preparation, dissemination or broadcast of paid political advertising or campaign material designed to defeat a ballot measure.
The plaintiffs sued the Minnesota attorney general and four county attorneys in Minnesota District Court, saying this law chills their participation in “vigorously participating in the debate surrounding school-funding ballot initiatives in Minnesota,” according to the 8th Circuit’s summary.
A federal judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim, finding that they lacked standing and that their claim was not ripe. The court also ruled that, even if the plaintiffs’ claim had subject-matter jurisdiction, it would still dismiss for failing to state a claim for which relief could be granted.
But a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit rejected both findings on Thursday.
“The county attorneys are the parties primarily responsible for enforcing the criminal portion of the statute; enjoining them would redress a discrete portion of plaintiffs’ alleged injury in fact,” Judge C. Arlen Beam wrote for the court. “Further, the county attorneys and the attorney general are also authorized – along with any other individual or organization – to institute a civil complaint. Granting declaratory or injunctive relief against the defendants would redress a discrete injury to plaintiffs. Thus, we find plaintiffs have standing.”
Beam added that the plaintiffs made reasonable claims.
“We disagree with the District Court’s conclusion that plaintiffs have not established objectively reasonable chilled speech because they have not alleged that they wish to engage in conduct that actually violates section 211.B06,” the 22-page ruling states, referring to the challenged statute. “We acknowledge that plaintiffs have not alleged that they wish to knowingly make false statements of fact. However, plaintiffs have alleged that they wish to engage in conduct that could reasonably be interpreted as making false statements with reckless disregard for the truth of those statements and that, therefore, they have reasonable cause to fear consequences of section 211.B06. We hold that, given the specifics of the challenged statute and the nature of the standing analysis in First Amendment political speech cases, this is enough to establish that plaintiffs’ decision to chill their speech was objectively reasonable.”
The panel rejected the defendants’ argument that the claim is not ripe.
“Here, defendants’ ripeness challenge fails because plaintiffs’ alleged injury has already occurred and will continue to occur at defined points,” Beam wrote. “Plaintiffs’ alleged injury is not based on speculation about a particular future prosecution or the defeat of a particular ballot question. Rather, the injury is speech that has already been chilled and speech that will be chilled each time a school funding initiative is on the ballot because of the very existence of section 211.B06.”
The panel also struck down the District Court’s alternate reason for dismissal: failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted.
“We agree with the Ninth Circuit that, ‘given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements, in order that clearly protected speech may flower in the shelter of the First Amendment,'” Beam wrote. “We do not, of course, hold today that a state may never regulate false speech in this context. Rather, we hold that it may only do so when it satisfies the First Amendment test required for content-based speech restrictions: that any regulation be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.”