WA Lawyer Free Speech
IJ v. State of Washington
Government Agency Seeks to Silence Not Only Citizen Activists, But Their Public Interest Lawyers, Too
|IJ Client Robin Farris|
A government agency whose job it is to limit political debate is now seeking to drastically restrict free civil rights advocacy—advocacy that has guided our nation to live up to its ideals of freedom and justice. A first-of-its-kind legal battle over the agency’s actions is now raging in Washington state and will answer important questions about the limits of government power, the right of free speech and political participation, and the ability of civil rights advocates to represent their clients against a government agency when that agency is violating constitutionally enshrined rights.
It is bad enough that Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission is working to silence those who merely seek to participate in the political process. But now, the PDC has sunk to a new level of vindictiveness pursuing a policy that threatens America’s long-held traditions of civil rights advocacy: The PDC is now seeking to unconstitutionally silence the public interest law firm that came to the aid of those the PDC tried to bully into silence in the first place. Undaunted, the grassroots political activists and their pro bono public interest attorneys filed a lawsuit in state court against the Public Disclosure Commission seeking to vindicate their right to receive and offer free legal aid to those whose most-fundamental civil rights are being violated by the government.
Since 2011, the Institute for Justice (IJ) has represented “Recall Dale Washam” in a challenge to a PDC-enforced statute that caps the amount of contributions that can be donated to a recall campaign. IJ, like most public interest law firms, is a 501(c)(3) organization, which doesn’t charge its clients for its services and, under the tax code, attracts tax-deductible contributions to sustain its mission. But if the PDC is successful in its efforts to require the Recall Dale Washam campaign to count IJ’s help as a campaign contribution, IJ would not only lose its ability to speak out freely through its pro bono legal help, it would also jeopardize the organization’s tax status because its legal services would be misconstrued as political advocacy—a “no no” in the nonprofit world. The recall campaign itself would face massive fines and even criminal punishment for accepting what the PDC is calling “in-kind contributions”—or what American jurisprudence has always considered vitally important free civil rights legal representation. Despite administering one of the most restrictive and intrusive campaign finance regulatory regimes in the country, the PDC seeks to limit the amount of legal services organizations like IJ can provide to organizations to vindicate their rights. For instance, in the recall context, the limit is a mere $900—or about two hours of billable time for the average attorney from any major American city.
The PDC has left IJ with two unacceptable choices: Jeopardize its nonprofit status or limit its public interest advocacy. Representing itself as well as its clients from the recall case, who rely on IJ’s free civil rights representation, the Institute for Justice selected a third option: Take the PDC to court. IJ filed suit in the Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Wash., on June 13, 2013. The case—which is the first of its kind in the nation—seeks to put an end to the PDC’s unprecedented actions. The case seeks to set an important precedent to stop this brazen attempt to frustrate federal civil rights law and secure the plaintiffs’ ability to provide, and receive, legal help in vindicating fundamental constitutional rights.