Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Nonprofit Groups Sue State
By Colleen Heild
Journal Staff Writer
Two nonprofit organizations on the hot seat for a blistering direct mail campaign that targeted a group of state legislators sued the New Mexico Secretary of State on Tuesday for requiring that they register as political committees.
Registering with the state would violate their First Amendment rights, states a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
The lawsuit was filed by New Mexico Youth Organized, which is an arm of the Center for Civic Policy; and Southwest Organizing Project.
The groups mailed out glossy fliers to voters earlier this year that cast a negative light on a group of mostly veteran incumbents. All but one legislator was up for re-election, and five of the eight targeted in the fliers were ultimately defeated at the polls.
Officials with the Secretary of State's Office weren't available for comment Tuesday.
In August, the agency, backed by the state Attorney General's Office, concluded the fliers constituted political activity under the law. The groups risk facing civil and criminal penalties for failing to register.
Matt Brix, of the Center for Civic Policy, said Tuesday that nonprofit organizations "have a responsibility to inform the public about the votes of elected officials and the source of their contributions." Requiring such registration, he added, "will muzzle the important civic engagement work of our sector."
Political committees are required to submit an annual public report of expenditures and contributions. State law defines such committees as two or more people who are organized or operate "primarily for a political purpose."
The lawsuit said both groups engage in "issue advocacy," not "express advocacy" for the election or defeat of political candidates.
New Mexico Youth Organized educates "young New Mexicans on issues including health care, clean elections, the economy and the environment," the lawsuit states.
SWOP educates the public on issues that include environmental health, economic development, housing and workers' rights, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says the U.S. Supreme Court has held that government can only regulate speech in clear-cut cases of electioneering, such as when the words "vote for" or "elect" are used. Or when a group's major purpose is nominating or electing a candidate or "if there can be no other reasonable interpretation (of the speech) other than as appeal to vote for or against a candidate."
Those conditions didn't apply to the mailers in question, the lawsuit states. They were sent out in advance of the election season and never mentioned the words "vote for" or "vote against."