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'Right to work' group sues to strike down Clean Campaign Act

by Associated Press
| September 14, 2021 12:00 AM

HELENA (AP) — A Montana group advocating for "right to work" policies sued on Monday to strike down the state's Clean Campaign Act, arguing it contains a provision that violates political speech protections.

Montana Citizens for Right to Work filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Helena against Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

A "right-to-work" law prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that would require workers to pay dues or fees to the union that represents them.

The lawsuit argues that a provision in the Clean Campaign Act is unconstitutional because it requires political committees to notify candidates of negative mailers, but mailers endorsing candidates are not subject to the same requirement. The lawsuit asks a judge to strike down the entire Clean Campaign Act and prohibit Mangan from following through on prosecuting Montana Citizens for Right to Work over a previous alleged violation.

The filing appears to be a preemptive strike at the state's top political cop, claiming Mangan is preparing a civil prosecution against the group for violating laws on notifying candidates if a negative mailer is sent out within 10 days of Election Day.

Mangan said Monday he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on pending litigation.

On Oct. 28, 2020, the group sent out 16,000 campaign mailers in 20 different legislative districts that distinguished the candidates in each race by their opinions on right-to-work laws. Two days later, an advisor for the Montana Democratic Party filed a complaint with Mangan's office alleging the right-to-work group did not notify candidates of the mailers distributed within 10 days of the election, as required in the Fair Notice provision, a part of the Clean Campaign Act.

Mangan determined last March that the group had failed to abide by the Clean Campaign Act. According to the lawsuit, Mangan notified the group it must pay an $8,000 fine or his office would prosecute, potentially landing the group a $20,000 fine.

"A $20,000 penalty for criticizing legislators is absurd even by Montana's anti-free-speech standards," Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney for the group and former Republican lawmaker, told the Montana State News Bureau. Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades is also representing the group.

Montana Citizens for Right to Work spent roughly $30,000 in the 2021 legislative session to support a bill prohibiting the requirement of joining a union as a condition of employment. That legislation failed 38-62, but Montana Citizens for Right to Work's executive director, Randy Pope, vowed a renewed effort to pass the legislation in the next session, which is scheduled for 2023.