Freedom of Political Speech Once Again In Jeopardy

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
October 16, 2008 12:00 am

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MCLU Defends Candidate’s Right to Campaign


PORTLAND — Tomorrow, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices will once again find itself in the middle of a dispute over campaign advertisements. At issue is a quote from Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings in praise of Portland’s Mayor, Ed Suslovic. His opponent claims the quote of praise gives the false impression that the Mayor was endorsed by Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings, which Suslovic adamantly denies. The Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation will represent Mayor Suslovic at the hearing on Friday, arguing that the quote was clearly not an endorsement and that candidates have freedom of speech when it comes to campaign advertisements.

“The right to unfettered political speech is at the heart of the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the MCLU. “Candidates should make their case to the voters, not to government commissions.”

The dispute arose when one of Mayor Suslovic’s opponents filed a complaint to the Election Practices Commission over a flyer that quoted an April 17, 2008 newspaper story. The flyer quoted Speaker Cummings referring to Mayor Suslovic as “visionary”. Speaker Cummings is not endorsing anyone in the City Council election, though he does not dispute the accuracy of the quote. It is not at all clear that those words even constitute an endorsement, and it will be up to the commission to decide whether it has any role to play in this dispute.

In a larger sense, though, this dispute implicates the role of the government in regulating campaign speech. Last year, the MCLU challenged the constitutionality of Maine’s endorsement statute in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. That case, Mowles v. Commission on Election Practices, involved the propriety of quoting from endorsements from previous elections. The MCLU argued in that case that government had no justification for telling candidates what to say or how to say it. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has not yet issued its decision on the constitutionality of the endorsement statute.

“The MCLU is committed to defending the First Amendment for everyone,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. “Freedom of political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and whether it is a political protester or a political candidate, the MCLU is going to do whatever is necessary to protect that freedom.”

The hearing Friday will be held at 1 p.m. in Room 208 of the Burton Cross Office Building, 111 Sewall St., Augusta.

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