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Maine Municipal Association Wins Victory in Federal Court on Free-Speech Claims


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Maine Municipal Association Wins Victory in Federal Court on Free-Speech Claims

Eben M. Albert

Maine Municipal Association won an important victory in federal court in a lawsuit that challenged MMA’s right to participate in five statewide citizen-initiative campaigns between 2004 and 2009. On February 14, 2013, Chief Judge John A. Woodcock granted summary judgment to MMA in a 2010 lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who were represented by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. MMA was represented by Paul McDonald and Eben Albert-Knopp of Bernstein Shur’s Litigation Group. 

The lawsuit challenged MMA’s contributions to and participation in five campaigns to support or oppose citizen initiatives affecting municipal taxing and spending. The plaintiffs claimed that MMA was a governmental or quasi-governmental entity and that MMA’s participation in the initiatives therefore violated the plaintiffs’ free-speech rights under federal and state constitutions. The plaintiffs conceded that one of MMA’s legitimate goals was to advocate on behalf of its members, but nevertheless sought to prohibit such advocacy in the context of citizen-initiated referenda. 

In a precedent-setting decision, Chief Judge Woodcock rejected the plaintiffs’ federal free-speech claims. The court relied on the so-called “government speech” doctrine, finding that the “Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech.” The decision marks the first time a federal court was asked to decide whether the doctrine applies in this context to a municipal association like MMA. The court held that “the government speech doctrine applies to MMA’s advocacy activities. This is another way of saying that MMA has not violated the plaintiffs’ rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.” 

Judge Woodcock aptly noted that a “core principle of our system of government is that more speech is better than less, and the plaintiffs remain free to make their own voices louder and more persuasive in the marketplace of ideas.” He quoted a recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals for the proposition that “governors and administrations are ultimately accountable to the electorate through the political process, which is the mechanism to test disagreements.”

Click here to read the full 56-page opinion.

Eben Albert-Knopp is an attorney and member of Bernstein Shur’s Business Law Practice Group and Litigation Group. He can be reached at ealbertknopp@bernsteinshur.com or 207 228-7364.