TRENTON, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – Advocacy and civil liberty groups are fighting against a new law in New Jersey that critics claim will silence voices, with some opponents describing it as a direct attack on the First Amendment.
A lawsuit filed June 25 in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is asking for an immediate injunction to stop those charged with implementing the provisions of Senate Bill 150 from carrying out its orders.
The bill, which New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed with deep reservations, states that particular organizations - those that file tax returns under the 527 category and raise more than $3,000 - must disclose donors if they are involved in influencing elections or legislators, or providing political information.
In its lawsuit, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a free market think tank funded largely by Koch brothers David and Charles, describe the law as "a breathtaking sweep." The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also deeply critical of the new law.
"Political information...is defined to include any statement made through any medium that reflects the organization’s opinions or that contains facts on any candidate or public question, legislation, or regulation," AFP states in its suit, which was filed against New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and other state officials.
"There is no other limit to the breathtaking sweep of this law — for example, nothing in the Act requires that a communication occur within a certain temporal window before an election, use certain media, reach a certain number of people, or even target any recipient in New Jersey in order to trigger coverage."
The suit asks the court to stop Grewal, Eric Jaso, the chair of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission and its commissioners Stephen Holder and Marguerite Simon from enforcing the provisions of the legislation.
“All Americans should be free under the First Amendment to choose how to share their beliefs," an AFP spokesperson said in a statement to Legal Newsline. "We’re proud to stand with a diverse array of issue organizations and community groups to protect those rights. This legislation could erode those foundational freedoms – making it harder for people to engage on the issues they’re passionate about, exposing them to potential retaliation, and, in doing so, insulating politicians from critique."
Murphy, in his signing statement, said that he did so because the legislature has promised to "swiftly pass legislation removing advocacy in connection with legislation and regulations from its parameters, thereby ensuring that the bill’s disclosure requirements apply to election-related advocacy, and making previously recommended technical revisions in order to ensure its consistent application."
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), a key sponsor of the bill, said he will introduce "clean up" legislation removing advocacy organizations from its drag net. While AFP has filed suit, the ACLU said it will take legal action if the legislature does not act.
In its suit, AFP argues, "This stunningly broad reach of S150 leaps far beyond anything the First Amendment permits. If the law takes effect, merely stating facts or offering opinions about laws, or even regulations, will trigger invasive disclosure requirements and daunting burdens of the sort reserved for regulation of electioneering advocacy that solicits votes for named candidates. AFP’s views are not universally popular, and experience has, unfortunately, shown that its donors will face threats, harassment and reprisals if their names are publicly disclosed."
According to the lawsuit and multiple news reports, the law evolved from a row between Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney. The senate leader is alleged to have pushed the bill through because an advocacy group supported the governor during combative budget negotiations last year. The suit claims the law evolved from "political revenge."