Citing Free Speech Principles, Court Overturns Seattle Ban on Candidates Mentioning Their Opponents

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
September 19, 2001 12:00 am

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SEATTLE, WA — Noting that freedom of speech is “essential to our democratic ideals,” a U.S. District Court Judge today overturned the ban on candidates mentioning their opponents in the City of Seattle’s voter pamphlet.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington challenging the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission’s censorship of candidate statements.

“Candidates should be free to tell the public clearly and directly why they are running for public office,” said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington. “Disagreement with an opponent’s record is a major reason why many citizens become candidates. It is ridiculous for the government to prevent them from mentioning their opponent.”

Agreeing with the ACLU’s arguments, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that the restriction on candidate statements violates the First Amendment because it bans the expression of certain viewpoints. As a result of the ruling, candidates running for office will be able to mention their opponents in statements in the voter pamphlet for the upcoming November general election.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Grant Cogswell, a candidate for City Council, whose statement for this month’s primary election pamphlet was rejected by the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission on grounds that it mentioned his opponent.

Another candidate, Mark Sidran, who is running for Mayor, also submitted a candidate statement that the Commission rejected. Much of the rejected language did not even refer to Sidran’s opponents but simply described significant problems he perceives in the current city government.

In his ruling, Judge Lasnik pointed out that, “In the circumstances of this case, allowing the incumbent to talk about his record and achievements while denying plaintiff the opportunity to talk about those same topics provides the public with only one side of a debatable subject and deprives plaintiff of a fair opportunity to present himself and his candidacy to the voters.”

Judge Lasnik also noted that freedom of speech has traditionally been considered a fundamental right in this country “not only because its facilitates intelligent self-government, but also because the free exchange of ideas is the best method by which to arrive at the truth.”

The ACLU is a nonpartisan organization and does not endorse candidates for elected office. ACLU cooperating attorneys William Rava, Noah Levine, and Lisa Willmer of the law firm Perkins Coie handled the case for the ACLU.

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