ACLU Challenges Ban on Candidates Mentioning their Opponents

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
August 7, 2001 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission’s censorship of candidate statements in the city’s voter pamphlet.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Grant Cogswell, a City Council candidate whose statement for the September primary pamphlet was rejected on grounds that it mentioned his opponent, seeks to reverse the commission’s initial rejection.

“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.””

Prior to each primary and general election, the City of Seattle publishes and distributes an election pamphlet in which all candidates are given the opportunity to submit statements about their candidacy. Following a mandate of state law, the city ordinance governing election pamphlets states that, “”a candidate’s statement shall not discuss the opponent.””

The ACLU maintains that these restrictions on candidate statements not only violate the First Amendment because they ban the expression of certain viewpoints, they also provide incumbents with an unfair advantage by presenting voters with a singular viewpoint.

“”Incumbents are free to discuss their tenure in office, to take personal credit for any actions taken by the governmental body for which they serve, and to offer such claimed achievements as reasons for people to vote for them,”” explained Taylor. “”However, opponents are prohibited from offering their own views on those same “achievements” claimed by incumbents.””

Grant Cogswell said he decided to run for City Council because of his concern for transportation issues. His opposition to the incumbent’s record on these issues is central to his candidacy. But in a July 31, 2001 letter, the Ethics and Elections Commission rejected the statement he submitted because it mentioned his opponent’s record in office. The commission later accepted an alternative statement by Cogswell that did not mention the incumbent.

In a conversation with the ACLU, the commission asserted that the restriction on opposition speech is necessary to prevent the use of public funds for campaign purposes. The commission stated that its goal is to “”make the pamphlet a unique source of voter information — not just another platform for candidates’ political advertising.”

“”This distinction is meaningless because the election pamphlet is intended to give all candidates a free and equal chance to tell – that is, to advertise – their reasons for running for office,”” said Taylor. “The City and its Ethics and Elections Commission should join us in opposing this unconstitutional law.”

The commission also rejected mayoral candidate Mark Sidran’s statement. Much of the rejected language did not refer to Sidran’s opponents but simply described significant problems he perceives in the current city government. A declaration from Sidran is included in the ACLU is lawsuit.

Rejected Statement of Grant Cogswell:

“Sound Transit refuses to consider monorail even though Seattle voted for it twice. The incumbent, Council member McIver, was originally appointed – not elected – to his seat on the city council in 1996. Since taking office, McIver has served as a key board member of Sound Transit and lobbied against grants for Monorail from that agency; voted for the legislation that repealed the first Monorail Initiative; hesitated to stand against the forces on regional committees who want more lanes on SR 520, and is failing to pursue sensible public transportation solutions for the city and the region.”

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