Sweet Grass county citizens join Western Tradition Partnership and Montana Citizens for Right to Work lawsuit against Montana political officials
Citizens seek to protect their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights after State Rep. threatens citizens right to engage in free speech free from government interference.
The Sweet Grass Council for Community Integrity (SGCCI) requested today that Judge Sherlock of Helena add their names as a plaintiff to a an ongoing free speech and association lawsuit against state officials filed by Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) and Montana Citizens for Right to Work.
SGCCI members engage in constitutionally protected political speech and association activities. As a result, SGCCI shares the concerns of the existing Plaintiffs that the Commissioner of Political Practices’ office may be used by people that disagree with its message as a state-sanctioned forum for political harassment and that the Commissioner of Political Practices will seek to apply unconstitutional Montana laws and regulations to their activities. Specifically, SGCCI will seek a judicial determination that they are not a political committee, namely an incidental political committee, under Montana law
The filing by the unincorporated group SGCCI and two of its members comes after State Rep. John Esp (R-Big Timber) threatened to file a complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practices and have state officials prosecute and investigate two of its members for speaking out as individuals against him during the 2010 election cycle.
In the days leading up to the 2010 primary election, Sweet Grass County residents Doug Lair and Bob Faw signed a letter to local residents exposing Esp’s record, and his false libel campaign about his opponent’s religion. Esp narrowly won the primary, and weeks later drove to Lair's home, threatening to have the Office of Political Practices in Helena criminally prosecute him and others.
“John Esp delivered the message to back off, but as far as I’m concerned, the government is supposed to work for the people, not the other way around. Citizens shouldn’t be bullied when speaking out about a public official’s record,” said Lair. “If they’re trying to shut down free speech in Sweet Grass County, it must be happening elsewhere, so we’re standing up so we can get back to this nation’s Founding principles and uphold the Constitution. We are compelled to join this case in order to strike down as unconstitutional the laws that John Esp and a long-line of others in Montana are using to harass those who seek to make our voices heard and our position on issues publicly known."
The suit seeks to stop the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices from exercising its overly broad enforcement and investigative powers, and from fining individuals and organizations by declaring every group in Montana who exercises its rights to engage in political speech as a “political committee” regardless of how de minimis their activites and without determining whether the organization is a political party committee or has the major purpose of electing or defeating a candidate for public office. United States Supreme Court jurisprudence makes clear that regulable political committees are organizations that expressly support or oppose candidates for public office. Like WTP and Montana Right to Work. SGCCI does not engage in such “express advocacy”.
Just days before the November election, and a mere 48 hours after WTP handed the OPP Unsworth and Bullock an embarrassing defeat in state court , Unsworth released an legally unsupported ruling wrongfully accusing WTP of impropriety, including false accusations the group was funded by a Saudi Arabian conspiracy. Despite the desperate timing of the ruling, WTP refused to allow their free speech rights to be chilled and continues to champion free-market policies and issues.
SGCCI now joins WTP’s 1st Amendment lawsuit seeking reforms to the OPP, which has suffered numerous court defeats in its previous attempts to suppress speech, most notably in 2009 when the Ninth Circuit federal court blasted the former Commissioner of Political Practices, Dennis Unsworth, for "petty bureaucratic harassment" of citizens with conservative viewpoints.
SGCCI website can be found at http://www.sweetgrassroots.org.