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City defends campaign law in federal court

on September 6, 2012

[Editor’s note: this story has been corrected from a previous version to note that the the ordinance requires the text reading “major funding from out-of-city contributors” to take up one-third of the disclosure section of the front page of a mailer. The disclosure section itself takes up one-quarter of the front page.]

An anti-soda tax lobbying group will argue in federal court tomorrow that the city cannot force it to disclose its financial contributions on campaign mailings.

The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (CCABT) filed a lawsuit with the city late last month disputing an order to prominently disclose their major financial contributors on the front page of campaign mailings.

Elli Abdoli, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, wrote that the city’s ordinance does not apply to her group because it concerns only independent expenditures, which she said her committee did not make. Independent expenditures include money spent to advocate for a candidate without coordination with the candidate.

In the six months before the city passed the ordinance, the CCABT spent nearly $350,000 in Richmond according to a campaign document submitted to the city clerk. The American Beverage Association donated more than a third of that amount to the CCABT, and under the current law would have to be listed on the mass mailers as a major contributor.

City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller wrote in an email to Abdoli on Aug. 15 that although the city would not enforce the law for mailings sent before the ordinance passed, similar mailings would violate the rule in the future.

Abdoli also said the ordinance was unconstitutional because it placed undue burden on political speech.

The ordinance “is an illegal, City-imposed Scarlet Letter that chills and substantially burdens the Committee’s First Amendment rights,” CCABT attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

The ordinance requires that campaign committees write financial contributions in the largest typeface possible. CCABT campaign mailings—like the ones sent out before the city passed the ordinance— would now have to devote one-third of the disclosure section, itself one-quarter of the front page, to the text “major funding from out-of-city contributors.”

“The obvious message to voters is that this speech that you’re getting in the mail is less credible because it’s coming from outside of the city,” said Chuck Finnie, CCABT spokesperson.

City Councilmember Jeff Ritterman said he expects the lawsuit to be settled quickly and in favor of the city.

“They’re really the Big Tobacco of today,” Ritterman said. “And they’re going to have the same outcome as Big Tobacco.”

The City Council decided in May to put the soda tax on the ballot in November. If passed, the city will tax businesses one cent for every ounce of sugar-sweetened beverages it serves. A separate companion measure will also be on the ballot asking voters whether the tax should be used for anti-obesity programs targeted to school-age children.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. in the Northern District Court of California in San Francisco.

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