Anti-abortion group protests phone limits

Plaintiffs argue they have right to campaign before an election

Posted: Friday, August 04, 2006

FAIRBANKS - An Alaska anti-abortion organization is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to negate state rules the group says have prevented it from conducting telephone campaigns within 30 days of elections.

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Alaska Right to Life is represented by the James Madison Center for Free Speech in Terre Haute, Ind., in the petition filed with the high court July 24. The court is expected to announce in October whether it will pick up the case.

James Bopp, an attorney with the Madison center, said the Alaska Right to Life Committee encountered a regulatory wall in 2002.

"They wanted to do some phone calls about the positions on issues of gubernatorial candidates, and they found out that they're illegal," Bopp said. "So we sued on their behalf."

The state rules were upheld in 2004 by U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline and also this year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under Alaska law, the group would have to preregister with the state to launch a phone campaign within 30 days of a general election. It also would have to regularly report how much it spends on the effort.

Bopp said those rules are unconstitutional restrictions on the group's free speech rights.

The Alaska law is far more restrictive than federal campaign finance law, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2003, Bopp said.

For nonprofit interest organizations such as Right to Life, federal law prohibits "broadcast" communications that meet three criteria: those that fall within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, refer to clearly identified candidates for federal office and are targeted at particular election districts.

In Alaska, any message falls into a limited category if it "directly or indirectly" mentions a candidate, is worth more than $500, is distributed within 30 days of a general or municipal election and "addresses an issue of national, state or local political importance and attributes a position on that issue to the candidate identified."

Other states have adopted similar limits, the Madison center's petition states.

Nothing prohibits Alaska Right to Life from launching the kind of advertising it desires, said Mike Frank, an Anchorage attorney who pushed for the 1996 state law. The group simply must register and disclose the sources of its income and spending, like any political action committee.

Eliminating those rules "would blow a huge, massive hole in the law," which is designed to prevent private organizations from spending unlimited amounts of money to influence elections without anyone knowing, Frank said.

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in state courts and lost as well. Its appeal of an Alaska Supreme Court decision faltered in 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case.

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