Montana Defends Campaign Finance Law Ahead of Elections

Gun-rights organization wants parts of new law blocked before June's primary elections.

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana attorneys on Tuesday defended the state’s new campaign finance disclosure law against a gun-rights organization that wants parts of it struck down before next month’s primary elections.

The Virginia-based National Association for Gun Rights claims the law passed by state legislators last year would force it to register as a political committee for making issue-advocacy statements that are protected by the First Amendment. The law imposes burdens — filing reports, disclosing contributors and opening a bank account among them — on groups that “simply desire to talk about matters of public concern,” the association’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, said in court filings.

State attorneys argued the law does not prevent so-called social welfare groups such as the National Association for Gun Rights from speaking freely, but it requires disclosure from those who do.

“Enjoining Montana’s election laws on the eve of an election would deprive Montanans of information that they have a compelling interest in knowing, at a time they need it most,” Assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest wrote in court filings.

The arguments were held Tuesday in federal court in Missoula. The gun-rights group is asking U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen to issue an order preventing the state from enforcing portions of the law by May 15.

The case by the National Association for Gun Rights is one of two federal lawsuits that could potentially upend Montana’s campaign finance rules just weeks before the June 7 primaries. In the other, a federal judge in Helena is weighing whether the state’s limits on how much donors can give to candidates is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell previously struck down those limits weeks before the 2012 general elections, leading to new lawsuits when money flooded into the governor’s race in the days before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the limits on appeal. Lovell has the case again, with instructions from the appellate court to apply a different standard for determining if Montana is justified in keeping the limits. His decision is expected before the June elections.

The National Association for Gun Rights is registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a “social welfare organization” that does not have to disclose its spending or donors. The group said it informs Montana citizens of the identities of state officeholders who falsely claim to support gun rights, which should be considered protected free speech not subject to regulation.

The group also seeks to strike another part of the law that requires a mailer that speaks about a candidate’s previous vote on an issue to list the candidate’s relevant voting record. Monforton also is asking Christiansen to protect the group from state prosecution for a mailer it sent in 2012 criticizing state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, who was up for re-election.

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