Levy opponents wish to overturn false campaign materials law

November 19, 2007

By Lynda Jensen

It is against the law to intentionally distribute false campaign material with respect to a school levy question – however, past opponents of local school ballot questions say this violates free speech rights.

Victor Niska of Waverly is one of two litigants – the other being Ron Stoffel, a resident of the Robbinsdale school district – who are trying to get a law declared unconstitutional that prohibits knowingly spreading false information during a levy campaign.

Niska, who chaired the “We Insist on Sound Education,” or WISE Committee, has worked in the past against two different ballot attempts for Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted:

• once in 2005 for a failed levy attempt that lost by 36 votes,

• and again February 2006, during a successful bond attempt, which resulted in the new high school currently being under construction.

The opponents of a levy in Robbinsdale, called 281 Care, as well as WISE, both worked with Iowa consultant Paul Dorr, who is well known for defeating school levies across several states by distributing disputed information days before an election.

Attorney Erick Kaardal represents both men in a court case filed Nov. 8 in US District Court, which is meant to stop school districts from suing them over the use of inaccurate information in their political campaigns.

Kaardal described the men as being “perpetually opposed to school levy referenda.”

“The state has no compelling interest to ban school bond opponents’ speech – regardless of whether school bond supporters believe their statements are false,” Kaardal said.

“Voters – not a state agency – should decide the truthfulness of campaigns against school bond referenda.”

HLWW Supt. George Ladd said he was amazed that anyone in Minnesota would think of filing such a lawsuit, since elections should be above board. “We like to be fair and honest here – Minnesota nice,” he said.

Niska was brought into court last year over the campaign law by proponents of the HLWW bond attempt in early 2006. However, of the three alleged false statements brought before the court, out of a total of 14 originally filed, all three were dismissed.

Stoffel is expecting Robbinsdale will file a similar complaint against him pertaining to false information.

“Free speech (is being) banned, deterred and chilled by the Office of Administrative hearings,” Kaardal said, referring to the disputed campaign material as “mistaken political speech.”

To further muddy the waters, Kaardal recently added the superintendent of Robbinsdale, Stan Mack, as a defendant to the lawsuits.

Kaardal said that his clients’ future free speech is being deterred by Mack’s threat of a lawsuit over the distributing false information campaign law, as well as Mack’s comments describing the 281 Care campaign as racist.

The “racist” comments that Mack was referring to were based on a 36-second recording courtesy of the 281 Care Committee, heard by Robbinsdale district residents the day before the election, persuading them to vote no.

The message included the thought that “district problems are brought in with non-resident students.”

“This implies that kids from north Minneapolis are the ones in gang fights and involved in bomb threats (at Robbinsdale schools),” a member of the vote “yes” campaign told the Star Tribune.

In its campaign ag

For those who remember, a last-minute brochure was sent to voters days before a bond ballot in February 2006, which contained inaccuracies that were acknowledged by Paul Dorr before it was mailed.

This included different numbers on student enrollment (Dorr quoted 465 students, with the school saying 599), using different numbers for the total number of students in the district (Dorr said 478, with the school saying 930), using incorrect student numbers to compute the cost of a new high school (Dorr quoted 310 students), and inconsistent cost figures of building a new school in comparison with a school built by Buffalo in 1997.

Nevertheless, of the 14 alleged false statements that Dorr and Niska were accused of by proponents of the bond, only three were acknowledged by the Court of Administrative Hearings as being worthy of review. These three were later found by the court to be “misleading, but not false,” (and therefore, not breaking the law).