Supreme Court rules against disclosing unpaid broadcast support

By Legal News Line | Apr 26, 2007

Washington Supreme Court

OLYMPIA -- Activist groups do not have to disclose radio-announcer support for a political campaign, the Washington Supreme Court ruled today. In a unanimous ruling in San Juan County and others vs. No New Gas Tax (NNGT), docket# 77966-0, the Supreme Court overturned a trial court ruling that on-air non-commercial support on a radio show is nonetheless a disclosable "campaign contribution." The case concerned two Seattle announcers in 2005 who strongly opposed a new statewide fuel tax and regularly gave on-air support to a repeal initiative (I-912). They also urged listeners to support NNGT, which backed I-912, by donating and circulating petitions. San Juan County and the cities of Kent, Auburn and Seattle charged that this practice violated the FCPA's disclosure provisions. But the Supreme Court disgreed, ruling that the broadcasts "fall within the statutory media exemption." The broadcasts "aired during the content portion of a regularly scheduled radio program, for which the broadcaster does not normally require payment, on a radio station that is not controlled by a candidate or political committee," wrote Justice Barbara A. Madsen. In a separate, more harshly-worded concurrence, Justice James M. Johnson referred to the case as "an example of abusive prosecution by several local governments." He said the case was an attempt to interfere with constitutional rights to free speech and association. "This litigation was actually for the purpose of restricting or silencing political opponents," wrote Justice Johnson, with Justice Richard B. Sanders in agreement. The Supreme Court also affirmed the trial court's denial of attorney fees to the prosecutors and remanded the case for further action.

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