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Originally published Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:28 PM

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Lawsuit targets part of Wash. disclosure law

Encouraged by recent Supreme Court campaign finance holdings, two small, volunteer political groups sued Thursday to strike down part of Washington's public disclosure law as a violation of their First Amendment rights to speech, assembly and petition.

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

Encouraged by recent Supreme Court campaign finance holdings, two small, volunteer political groups sued Thursday to strike down part of Washington's public disclosure law as a violation of their First Amendment rights to speech, assembly and petition.

The groups claim that having to register as grassroots lobbying organizations is burdensome, they shouldn't have to tell the government about their efforts to reach out to other citizens, and revealing information about their financial supporters could leave them open to threats from political opponents.

"This is a law that reaches into small, volunteer organizations and requires them to report activities and financial information as little as if you spend $25 on sandwiches or copies of a pamphlet," said their lawyer, Bill Maurer of Seattle. "The government doesn't have an interest in trying to figure out which citizens are talking to other citizens about political issues."

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma against the five members of Washington's Public Disclosure Commission and its director. Spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the commission had not reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment.

Washington's law requires that people or groups that spend more than $500 a month, or $1,000 over three months, reaching out to members of the public with the intent of influencing legislation must file information about their activities with the Public Disclosure Commission. Such information includes names, addresses and occupations of the groups' leaders; names and addresses of anyone who contributes $25 or more; and the purpose of the campaign.

Maurer, with the Virginia-based, libertarian, public-interest law firm Institute for Justice, said such laws exist in three dozen states. Previous challenges have failed in court because judges have assumed that the laws do not burden political speech, he said, but he's encouraged by the Supreme Court's recent move "in a less regulatory direction regarding campaign finance laws."

In a sweeping ruling early this year, the court held that corporations, unions and groups of individuals can spend unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates - as long as they do it independently of campaigns.

Maurer's ultimate goal is to overturn a 1954 Supreme Court decision that said the government can force people to register as lobbyists and disclose their activities if they're involved in direct communication with lawmakers; the ruling defined "direct communication" to include "artificially stimulated letter campaigns."

Under that holding, many states have crafted laws requiring disclosure of certain "grassroots lobbying" efforts - even if that "lobbying" consists of urging other people to contact their representatives. Maurer said their should be no financial limits on such activity, or thresholds for reporting it.

Seattle attorney Jim Frush, who has done work for the Public Disclosure Commission in the past, acknowledged that the "grassroots lobbying" laws can be vague and people can have a hard time knowing whether they're covered. Nevertheless, he called the provision a "bulwark of our political process."

And given the Supreme Court's recent ruling that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures, such laws are especially important, he said.

"You have very sophisticated groups that spread their tentacles out by masquerading as these 'grassroots' groups, like the financing of the tea party stuff," Frush said. "The people have an interest in having transparency in where the money is coming from in the political process.

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"And to the extent that the activity doesn't involve money, they're not required to register or report. If people want to go around the neighborhood and doorbell, their freedoms of speech and association are totally unhindered."

The two groups challenging Washington's law are Many Cultures, One Message, a group that has opposed the use of eminent domain for redevelopment in southeast Seattle; and Conservative Enthusiasts, a group dedicated to promoting small government and opposing taxes.

The PDC ruled in March that the groups were not exempt from disclosure requirements, and in a letter to Maurer urged them to keep in mind that the law was passed by initiative in 1972 to "maintain openness and transparency in lobbying and financial efforts to affect legislation."

"These statutes enable the voters to 'follow the money' in lobbying and campaigns, including grassroots lobbying," the letter said.

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