Judge issues temporary freeze on new election law

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) — A federal court judge has placed a temporary freeze on a new Michigan election law that critics say amounts to a “gag order,” and urged lawmakers to clarify the issue quickly.

U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara said he issued a preliminary injunction on the law Friday because it was unconstitutionally vague and encroached on free speech rights.

The law stops local officials from distributing information about local ballot proposals 60 days before an election, which supporters said would curb local officials from using taxpayer dollars to spread biased interpretations of ballot proposals. State law already prohibits them from using taxpayer money for outright advocacy.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law about a month ago, though he also asked the Legislature to next clarify what information local officials could communicate.

The measure drew the ire of many local and school officials who said it restricted their ability to inform voters about important ballot proposals.

“Public officials deserve clarity on this issue so that they may serve the public in the normal course without fear of arbitrary sanction or prosecution,” O’Meara wrote in his decision. “This matter is best resolved through the legislative process, with due deliberation and debate.”

He urged speed due to the March 8 election, saying, “time is of the essence and the court must act.”

Earlier this week, the House Elections Committee approved a bill aimed at clarifying the new election law, allowing public officials to distribute “factual” and “strictly neutral” information about ballot proposals, including the ballot language and the date of the election, regardless of how close it is to the election.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, said in a statement Friday that she is still focused on passing her legislation. “The court agrees that clarifying language will further improve the existing law, therefore I urge my legislative colleagues and interested stakeholders to support my bill which protects hardworking taxpayers and clarifies that schools and local governments can disseminate factual information to residents,” she said.

State law already prohibits local officials from using taxpayer money for advocacy, and the distribution of factual information was allowed prior to the new election law, which was passed without a public hearing or debate.

The intent of the new law was to stop public bodies from providing biased information at the expense of taxpayers, Lyons said Wednesday. That’s a point Snyder made last month, saying the law was intended “only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars.”

Jerome R. Watson, who argued for the 18 local officials who filed the lawsuit requesting the injunction, praised O’Meara’s decision and said the law would have caused “irreparable harm.”

Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly, president of the Michigan Municipal League, said the ruling was “confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along, which is that this law was overreaching and attempted to solve a problem that didn’t exist.”