Our Editorial: Lawmakers should get rid of ‘gag order’

The Detroit News

Republican lawmakers zealous about limiting municipal tax increases passed legislation last month that tells schools and other local governments they can’t say anything about millage proposals two months before an election. This last-minute amendment was a bad idea at the time, and now it’s turned into a lawsuit.

We advised Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the bill earlier this month and instruct lawmakers to take out the provision they’d attached to a campaign finance bill. But he signed it, choosing oddly to ask lawmakers to make it better after it became a law.

Snyder should have forced the Legislature to get it right the first time. Because now the state faces a lawsuit, while lawmakers are clumsily introducing bills to amend the botched law.

Several lawmakers admitted after the fact that they hadn’t even had a chance to read what’s become known as the “gag order” amendment before voting on it.

That’s not generally the right way to go about lawmaking.

This week 18 individual school district and local government officials filed a lawsuit in federal court against Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and the state of Michigan, claiming the gag order is unconstitutional and should be rejected.

Lawmakers brought this on themselves. The suit was expected, given how far Public Act 269 (it was Senate Bill 571) goes to limit what government officials can tell voters ahead of an election.

The part of the law in question should simply be scrapped. And if the Legislature wants to continue the discussion, it’s going to have to do it in a much more careful and thoughtful way.

The plaintiffs make the case that state law already prohibits government officials from using tax dollars to advocate for or against a proposal, and that the new law tramples on their constitutional rights by limiting the factual information they can give residents 60 days before an election.

“More than 100 school districts and local governments with issues on the March 8 ballot already are being harmed by the new law,” a press release from the plaintiffs states.

Defenders of the controversial section of law have said it isn’t an affront to the First Amendment since it doesn’t bar teachers or other officials from communicating with the public about upcoming ballot proposals on their own dime. But mass mailings are likely out of the budget for most of these government employees.

“It’s an absolute gag order preventing public officials from addressing their constituents and residents about matters of local concern,” said Scott Eldridge, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, in a statement.

The same afternoon the lawsuit was filed, Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, and Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, each introduced legislation to amend the section of the law under scrutiny. Their bills would appear to negate this section and allow public officials to share “factual information on any legislation up for a public vote.”

This corrective legislation should have come more swiftly, and it could have avoided the lawsuit. But lawmakers should get this right — and soon.