MN court upholds law against false claims in political campaigns

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today upheld a ruling that the First Amendment does not allow a 2016 candidate for Minnesota Supreme Court to lie about receiving the endorsement of the Republican Party of Minnesota Republican Party of Minnesota’s Judicial Selection Committee.

Michelle MacDonald made the claim in information she supplied to the Star Tribune as part of the newspaper’s voter’s guide. The paper printed it.

An administrative panel ruled she violated Minnesota law, which says “a person or candidate may not knowingly make, directly or indirectly, a false claim stating or implying that a candidate or ballot question has the support or endorsement of a major political party or party unit or of an organization.”

Generally, speech that is curtailed based on its content risks running afoul of the First Amendment protections, but the court said there’s a compelling state interest in “promoting informed voting and protecting the political process.”

“The plainly legitimate purpose of Minn. Stat. § 211B.02 is preventing false speech that misleads the public regarding elections,” Judge Louise Bjorkman wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel (see ruling). “MacDonald argues that the statute substantially sweeps outside this aim and chills truthful political speech because ‘a candidate cannot truthfully report a sub-unit’s endorsement without threat of a violation that the statement is false because [the RPM] did not endorse.’ This argument is unavailing.”

First, the statute on its face only prohibits a candidate from making a “knowingly false claim.” Truthful political speech is not proscribed by the statute. In Schmitt, our supreme court considered a predecessor statute of section 211B.02 that similarly prohibited a candidate from making a false claim of endorsement or support from a political party or sub-unit of a political party.

The supreme court observed the statute was narrowly tailored to defeat an overbreadth challenge because it was “directed specifically at false claims of endorsement or support.” Moreover, the statute’s specific-intent requirement—that false claims be knowingly made—ensures that “the statute does not target broad categories of speech.”

Second, we reject MacDonald’s contention that the statute prohibits a candidate from truthfully reporting receipt of a party sub-unit’s endorsement. Neither the statutory language nor OAH’s decision supports MacDonald’s assertion that the statute prohibits her from claiming endorsement or support of a sub-unit of the RPM because the party did not endorse her. OAH’s determination that she violated section 211B.02 was not based on the fact that the RPM did not endorse her. Rather, OAH found that she violated the statute by claiming that the judicial-election committee endorsed her when it had not and lacked the authority to do so.

Indeed, OAH observed that MacDonald “could have truthfully stated in her candidate profile that a majority of the RPM’s judicial election committee supported her candidacy.” It is the falsity of her statement that the committee endorsed her candidacy
that violated the statute.

MacDonald, a St. Paul attorney, won her party’s endorsement in her 2014 bid against Supreme Court justice David Lillehaug. But the party disavowed her after she was arrested on a DUI charge. MacDonald sued the party and was ejected from the party’s booth at the Minnesota State Fair.

Nonetheless, she received 40 percent of the vote last November while trying to unseat Justice Natalie Hudson.

One other takeaway from today’s decision: Don’t believe everything you read in a voter’s guide.

[Correction: The initial post indicated the issue involved the endorsement of the Republican Party of Minnesota. It did not. It involved the judicial selection committee of the Republican Party of Minnesota, which recommends endorsements to the party, but does not, itself, endorse candidates. After receiving the committee’s recommendation for endorsement, the party chose not to endorse MacDonald. The “Endorsements” section of the Star Tribune’s voter guide indicated that MacDonald received an endorsement from “GOP’s Judicial Selection Committee 2016.”]

  • MrE85

    “One other takeaway from today’s decision: Don’t believe everything you read in a voter’s guide.”

    Sage advice.

  • ET

    Beware any judicial candidate with an initial behind their name on the ballot.

    • michelle macdonald

      ET, It might interest you to know that nearly all judicial candidates are appointed by the Governor, and run unopposed. They do not put an “R” or “D” beside judicial candidates names when they run. Nor do they say whether a democratic or republican governor appointed them.

  • She was merely an early adopter of “alternative facts”. Today that is a GOP mainstay.

  • michelle macdonald

    This is Michelle MacDonald. Today marks my 30th year of practicing law. I am disappointed that your article not only omitted
    the forensic (and simple) facts of what happened, but lied. Of course Free Speech does not allow a candidate to lie about receiving the endorsement of the republican party. The fact is I never said that I was republican endorsed in 2016, and your article pretends that I did. The accurate facts are set forth in
    the decision that you omitted. You can also watch the oral argument below.
    The fact is that the statute is overbroad because it captured a simple statement
    that I made that I was endorsed by the “GOP’s judicial [s]election committee,”
    which was absolutely true. This was not a false statement by a candidate, me. If such a true statement of speech can be “captured” by the statute, warranting dragging me (and others) through an administrative court case, it is overbroad and
    unconstitutional. Also the gentleman that complained was a DFLer and blogger. It is
    not about the $500.00 fine either. I could have just paid that.
    The fact is that free speech everywhere is jeopardized, and has been for a long
    time. This case should illustrate that because how can I be prosecuted for something I did not even say? I will continue to keep my stand for the people of Minnesota, starting with educating them on the constitution, which are courts fail to do.

    Today, September 11, is my 30 year anniversary of practicing law, and I have watched the slippery slop. Our First Amendment is terribly diluted by the statute and
    this decision. This is one of the reasons I ran for the highest state office,
    because judges have wrong-thinking: their thinking is warped. We now have a case that proves that but eyes need to be opened. Your article was of no help to the public, omitting the actual facts of the case, and warping the decision. Attorney Michelle MacDonald 612-554-0932

    • Ickster

      Indeed, OAH observed that MacDonald “could have truthfully stated in her candidate profile that a majority of the RPM’s judicial election committee supported her candidacy.” It is the falsity of her statement that the committee endorsed her candidacy that violated the statute.

      What specific part of that section of the ruling do you disagree with?

      • michelle macdonald

        It’s not what I didn’t say. It is what I said. Thanks for pointing out that the court is telling me the words it would preferred that I had used. Why must I use the words “a majority of the RPM’s judicial election committee supported her candidacy” . The statute prohibits false claims of “support or endorsement”. I did not claim I was endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota in 2016. That is my point. The statute is unconstitutionally overbroad. I said what I said. I used the words that I used. What I said was the truth and, most importantly, I did not say I was endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota in 2016. I should not have to say what I didn’t say (again I did not say I was endorsed by the Republican Party) in a different way. Also, a candidate saying they were supported could be deemed a violation as well.

        • Ickster

          Aside from the mistake in Bob’s original post, no one (including the appeals court) is claiming that you made a claim of endorsement from the Republican Party. However, you apparently did claim endorsement from the Republican Party of Minnesota’s Judicial Election Committee, a body which cannot endorse candidates. That’s the falsehood at the crux of the ruling. You continue to argue (in your reply to me and others) a completely moot point. The Appeals Court seems to have found as much merit in your arguments as I do.

          • michelle macdonald

            Okay. Now you get it. Should I get fined because one person said I used the wrong words? I am so glad you got that I did not say I was endorsed in 2016, just in 2014. You are brilliant.

          • Ickster

            “Now” I get it? I’ve been very clear about the facts since the beginning, but I am seriously doubting your grip on reality. Here’s a section of the ruling:

            ‘On October 18, 2016, the Star Tribune published a “Voter Guide” with profiles of candidates running for various state offices, including MacDonald. The profile was based on information submitted by MacDonald. The “Endorsements” section indicated that MacDonald received an endorsement from “GOP’s Judicial Selection Committee 2016.” ‘

            Unless you’re claiming that the Court’s ruling is factually incorrect, you DID claim an endorsement in 2016 that you did not (and could not) receive.

            Seek help.

    • RBHolb

      “Also the gentleman that complained was a DFLer and blogger.”

      Neither of which have anything to do with the underlying question of whether his complaint was accurate.

      • michelle macdonald

        You’re right about the DFLer and blogger comment. Sorry. But I did not say I was republican endorsed in 2016 because I was not. The blogger knew it. He was not confused.The point is the statute is overbroad if it captures and can twist what my exact words were. Again I did not say I was endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota. If you had read the voters guide, you would not get that impression at all. The claim I made was absolutely true.

    • I’m primarily interested in the constitutional questions in appellate cases and, in this case, the questions whether the statute is overly broad. The story here is that the Court of Appeals said it’s not, not that you think it is.

      I provided a link to the opinion for anyone who wants to dive into anything else.

      • michelle macdonald

        It is your first paragraph that is disconcerting, Bob. It is entirely inaccurate, a spin. You flat out say that I lied about “receiving the endorsement of the Republican party of Minnesota.” I was endorsed by the GOP’s judicial [s]election committee and those were my words. Right above that statement, I said I was endorsed by the Republican Party in 2014. No one reading what I wrote would be say that I was endorsed by the Republican Party of Minnesota in 2016. I was accurate in my speech.

    • Barton

      (wish I had pulled this up last night instead of the Vikings game… also wish I had popcorn as I read through this).

    • Angry Jonny

      An attorney taking shots at judges? Sounds like a recipe for success, there.

      • michelle macdonald

        Thank you. Exactly, Jonathan.

  • Jim in RF

    Good luck with the next 30.

    • Jim in RF

      I’ll see you at the fair.