A Montana "right-to-work" group on Monday filed a lawsuit 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. So-called "right-to-work" laws prohibit the requirement that non-union members contribute to the cost of union representation.
The filing appears to be a preemptive strike at the state's top political cop, claiming Mangan is preparing a civil prosecution against Montana Citizens for Right to Work 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.
The group sent out 16,000 campaign mailers in 20 different legislative districts on Oct. 28, 2020 that distinguished the candidates in each race by their opinions on right-to-work laws. On Oct. 30, a senior 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 issued his findings in March, determining Montana Citizens for Right to Work had failed to abide by the Clean Campaign Act. According to the lawsuit, Mangan notified the group it must pay a $8,000 fine or his office would prosecute, potentially landing Montana Citizens for Right to Work a $20,000 fine.
The group argues in its filing the Fair Notice provision is unconstitutional because it requires political committees 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 based on the March violation.
"A $20,000 penalty for criticizing legislators is absurd even by Montana’s anti free-speech standards," Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney and former Republican lawmaker, said when reached by phone for comment Monday. Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades is also representing Montana Citizens for Right to Work.
Montana Citizens for Right to Work put up roughly $30,000 in the 2021 legislative session to support a bill prohibiting the requirement of joining a union as a condition of employment. The bill would have also barred private-sector unions from requiring non-members covered by bargaining agreements pay union dues.
That legislation, House Bill 251, went down 38-62, with 29 Republicans joining all House Democrats in opposition. But Montana Citizens for Right to Work's executive director, Randy Pope, vowed a renewed effort to pass the legislation in the 2023 session.