Parent Group Fights|Campaign Penalty

     (CN) – A Tennessee campaign finance board wrongfully labeled a group of parents a political committee and fined them for Internet posts, the parents claim.
     A collection of Williamson County, Tenn. parents and their group Williamson Strong sued the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and members Tom Lawless, Patricia Heim, Norma Lester and Tom Morton in Federal Court on July 1.
     They allege freedom of speech and right of association violations.
     Williamson Strong was formed in 2014 to discuss issues relating to the Williamson County School District, according to the complaint. The coalition says it never spent money in support of a candidate or ballot measure.
     One school board electee, Susan Curlee, allegedly did not like some posts on the Williamson Strong group Facebook page about her candidacy. She filed a complaint with the state campaign finance registry in December, claiming the parent group did not properly register as a political committee and did not disclose money spent on candidates.
     A county attorney general found that Curlee’s allegations lacked merit but the registry decided to hear her complaint anyway, according to the group’s lawsuit. A hearing was held in January, where a show cause order where “inappropriately issued,” following by another hearing in March, Williamson Strong claims.
     A third hearing was held in May, where campaign finance registry members allegedly cited personal emails from Williamson Strong members discussing school board elections.
     “Despite the fact that none of the members of Williamson Strong ever posted an endorsement of any candidate under the moniker Williamson Strong, Heim and Lester alleged these personal non-public emails, which were technically inadmissible evidence, were somehow akin to spending money on behalf of the election of specific candidates,” the complaint states. “Heim and Lester opined that while they did not believe Williamson Strong meets the definition of a political campaign committee, the group’s behavior ‘stinks’ and they wished to penalize the group anyway.”
     A board motion for $20,000 in fines against Williamson Strong was denied, but a $5,000 fine passed with a 4-1 vote, according to the complaint.
     “The order presented a finding that the expression of political opinions on the Williamson Strong website and Facebook page, coupled with personal private emails sent by individual plaintiffs in their individual capacities, qualified [various] infrastructure costs and volunteer efforts by Williamson Strong members as political expenditures against particular candidates’ candidacies,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs and all Tennesseans’ abilities to be members of a group but still present their own political opinions have been chilled by this action.”
     The parent group claims the finance registry also wrongfully accused it of deleting Internet posts that are still accessible. Williamson Strong members say they have a First Amendment right to discuss political processes affecting their children’s educational experiences.
     “Despite never being presented with any evidence of any expenditure on behalf of any candidate, let alone any endorsement of any candidate, the registry elected to persecute and penalize parents for discussing the school board elections of the very district where their children attend school,” the complaint states.
     They also allege that certain state laws are unconstitutional because they seemingly allowed the registry to penalize the group despite the board’s lack of jurisdiction over local campaign finance issue.
     “Tennessee’s campaign finance laws, which have at best facilitated four of the registry’s members to entertain the notion that they possess the authority to regulate the plaintiffs’ political speech and at worst actually authorized them to do so, are clearly unconstitutional both in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United and the chilling effect they have had on Tennesseans’ ability to engage in constitutionally-protected political speech,” the complaint states.
     Williamson Strong and its members seek injunction rescinding judgment against them and a declaration that Tennessee campaign finance laws are unconstitutional. They are represented by J. Gerard Stranch IV of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings in Nashville.
     The election finance registry did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

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