Supreme Court won't hear anti-abortion group's case

Organization says campaign laws violate free speech

Posted: Tuesday, October 03, 2006

JUNEAU - The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear an Alaska anti-abortion group's challenge that state campaign finance laws violate its constitutional right to free speech.

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That means the Alaska Right to Life Committee will have to register with the state and disclose its income and expenditures if it wants to conduct telephone campaigns within 30 days of elections.

That was ruling of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year in denying the group's request to strike down Alaska's electioneering laws.

"It's good to know that our electioneering definition will withstand a court challenge," Alaska Public Offices Commission Executive Director Brooke Miles said Monday.

The case sprung from a dispute prior to the 2002 gubernatorial election.

The anti-abortion group said in its petition to the Supreme Court that it planned to "engage in similar fundraising during the next general election in Alaska and future elections" if the Supreme Court granted its petition.

Republican candidate Sarah Palin is anti-abortion, although spokesman Curtis Smith said she is not and has not been a member of the Alaska Right to Life Committee. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles supports abortion rights.

The anti-abortion group is a tax-exempt nonprofit group that claims 8,000 donating households as members. The Alaska Right to Life Committee is affiliated with the Alaska Right to Life Political Action Committee, an advocacy organization, and Alaska Right to Life Inc., an educational organization.

The three share the same director and same boards and "the degree of financial separation among the three entities is unclear," Judge William A. Fletcher's opinion for the 9th Circuit court read.

The political action committee spent more than $3,500 in bulk mail preparation and postage in the weeks prior to this year's primary election, according to APOC documents.

Alaska Right to Life Executive Director Karen L. Lewis said the group will still get its message out within the 30-day electioneering period through the political action committee, but she was disappointed the Supreme Court did not take up the case.

"It seems like we're being silenced. Free speech should always be in place," she said.

Asked why the group simply did not register with APOC, Lewis said: "I think I'd have to get the board's input on that."

The group had planned a telemarketing campaign shortly before the 2002 election to state Republican Frank Murkowski's and Democrat Fran Ulmer's views on abortion and urge people to vote. The calls were also supposed to be a fundraiser for the group, according to the petition to the Supreme Court.

But state law required the group to register with APOC before conducting such "electioneering communications."

The law limits such campaigns that directly or indirectly mentions a candidate, are worth more than $500, are distributed within 30 days of an election and "addresses an issue of national, state or local political importance and attributes a position on that issue to the candidate identified."

Alaska Right to Life claimed it was "chilled from expressing its political views in the 2002 election and fears enforcement actions against it by (APOC) in future elections," according to the petition.

In the petition, the group argued that the state's rules for "electioneering communications" are too broad and too vague, and they impose prohibitions and burdens more suited for political action committees.

The 9th Circuit agreed with a lower court's dismissal of Alaska Right to Life's claims. Alaska's "electioneering communication" laws had closed a loophole that allowed evasion of disclosure requirements, Fletcher's opinion read.



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