Opponents of freedom to marry file suit to allow unlimited campaign spending in Rhode Island

Posted by Katherine Gregg on projo.com:

"A group seeking to head off the legalization of the freedom to marry in Rhode Island has gone to court seeking the right to spend thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads for and against candidates for governor and the General Assembly, free from the state’s contribution limits and 'extensive reporting requirements.'

"The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month by the National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit group with a multimillion-dollar war chest.

"Framed as a First Amendment legal battle, the suit was one of three filed in recent weeks by the James Madison Center for Free Speech that challenge the restrictions on political advertising and campaign-finance disclosure requirements in New York, Florida and Rhode Island.

"It remains unclear how much money the group plans to spend in Rhode Island. But the group served notice, in its court filing, that it intends to 'engage in multiple forms of speech in Rhode Island' in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, 'including radio ads, television ads, direct mail and publicly accessible Internet postings.'

"The principal beneficiary of NOM advertising in Rhode Island would be Republican John Robitaille, the only one of the better-known candidates in the crowded race for governor who opposes marriage equality.  Asked again on Monday where he stands, Robitaille said: 'I oppose marriage for same-sex couples because I believe marriage is between one man and one woman.'

"A spokesman for state treasurer and Democratic candidate for governor Frank T. Caprio said: 'Frank supports marriage equality and would sign a freedom to marry bill as governor.' Independent Lincoln D. Chafee said: 'I support the right of all individuals to marry.' Moderate Party candidate Ken Block said: 'As governor, I would sign a bill into law allowing the freedom to marry in Rhode Island because I believe it is an issue of civil rights.'

"Samples of the ads NOM plans to run in Rhode Island are appended to the lawsuit. One begins with a narrator saying: 'Think legalizing marriage equality doesn’t affect your family?'

"Then a 'parent' asks: 'Hi Emily, what happened in school today?' And the child answers: 'I learned about a prince who married a prince. And I can marry a princess!'

"The narrator: 'Legalizing the freedom to marry has consequences for kids. Massachusetts schools teach second graders that boys can marry other boys. A California public school took first graders to a wedding of a same-sex couple, calling it a teachable moment. Kids have enough to deal with already, without pushing equal marriage rights on them.'

"Then the political plug: 'John Robitaille knows that in these troubled times in Rhode Island, we don’t have time to push marriage equality on Rhode Island families. Call John Robitaille and tell him: Thank you for standing up for marriage.' (The ad would have named former state Rep. Victor Moffitt had he won the Sept. 14 GOP primary instead.)

"A second ad urges viewers or listeners to call Chafee in one version — and Caprio in another — 'and tell him: Don’t mess with marriage.'

"In Rhode Island, the state Board of Elections has taken the position that 'independent expenditures' by corporations — and groups such as the National Organization for Marriage — are permitted as long as the groups do not coordinate their ads and strategy with any candidate.

"But NOM’s lawyers argue that Rhode Island’s definitions of what is allowed by 'persons not acting in concert with any other person or group' are so vague as to put the organization at risk of penalty.

"It asks the court to issue one or more declarative judgments to make sure NOM is not subject to the $1,000 contribution limit on Political Action Committees or, conversely, to the 'extensive reporting requirements' that the Board of Elections applies to other kinds of entities making unlimited 'independent expenditures.'

"Since a PAC is defined as 'any group of two or more persons that accepts contributions to be used for advocating the election or defeat of any candidate or candidates,' the lawsuit says that 'NOM reasonably fears that it is a PAC under Rhode Island law' and, thus, subject to the 'panoply of burdens that R.I. via its PAC definition, imposes on organizations such as NOM, including registration, record-keeping requirements, extensive reporting requirements, limits on contributions received, contributions source bans.'

“'The weight of these burdens is such that the speech would simply not be worth it for NOM,' the suit says.

"Bopp was the lawyer and veteran member of the Republican National Committee who first advised the conservative group Citizens United to use its 'Hillary: The Movie' as a test of the limits on corporate political spending that ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last winter that corporations, unions and nonprofit groups have the right to spend as much as they want supporting or opposing the election of a candidate.

... "The response from Michael J. Healey, spokesman for the attorney general’s office: 'Mr. Bopp has been called a ‘litigation machine’ and, now, we can certainly see why, but we’re not as certain as he apparently is about how Rhode Island law is harming his organization. We’ll go to court, defend the Board of Elections and the taxpayers, and let the chips fall where they may.'”

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