October 20, 2017

Bill in MI Would Limit Info to Voters; Librarians Protest

Update: On January 6, Gov. Snyder signed SB 571 into law. It is now Public Act 269 of 2015. Snyder is requesting that the Legislature pass clarifying legislation on the provision in question in time for the March 2016 election.

Michigan state capitol

Michigan state capitol

In Michigan, a new law that could restrict the sharing of ballot information prior to voting has alarmed librarians and allies, who rallied to action. In a surprising last-minute vote on December 16 in Lansing, the Michigan house and senate acted in concert to send several bills to Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI). Among them was an amended version of Senate Bill 571, a finance reform measure, which included new language prohibiting libraries and other public resources from transmitting information about local ballot initiatives for 60 days prior to an election. On its final page, Item 3 of Section 57 reads:

A public body, or a person acting for a public body, shall not, during the period 60 days before an election in which a local ballot question appears on a ballot, use public funds or resources for a communication by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message if that communication references a local ballot question and is targeted to the relevant electorate where the local ballot question appears on the ballot.

Among other repercussions of this provision, librarians, staff, and administrators would be forbidden to use library platforms to share information about upcoming ballots with patrons during the 60-day period when most voters first engage with the issues at stake. In addition, noted the Michigan Municipal League’s director of state affairs Chris Hackbarth on the organization’s blog, “Because this language specifically bans communication on only local ballot questions, the provision creates inconsistent treatment between communicating with residents on statewide ballot questions versus local questions.” Violation puts a community at risk for a state fine of up to $20,000.

“This is potentially harmful to the libraries trying to educate their patrons and communities about a millage,” explained Gail Madziar, executive director of the Michigan Library Association. “But it also goes further than that, in that they wouldn’t be able to answer questions about [initiatives], they wouldn’t be able to have conversations about what would happen if this millage passed or didn’t pass. And as you know, libraries are very often the source of information for other election information in general, and they wouldn’t be allowed to provide that as well. It really puts a damper on providing information and sharing informational materials throughout Michigan—basically informing voters about issues impacting their communities. That’s part of the library’s responsibility, and they’ll be prohibited from doing that.” This would include, for example, sending out a newsletter with more than 500 recipients, which would qualify as bulk mail.

John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, a national political action committee (PAC) for libraries and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, added, “This affects every independent taxing jurisdiction from libraries to schools to parks and rec, in some cases police and fire safety…. We’re concerned because the sharing of factual information…is a core function of our democratic process, a core responsibility of the library board and staff.”

FROM 12 PAGES TO 53

In its original form SB 571, which amended a 1976 campaign finance act concerning corporate PAC rules, was introduced by Sen. Mike Kowall (R–District 15) in October as a 12-page bill, and was unanimously approved by the senate in November. The bill’s original intent, noted Chrastka, included civil and criminal penalties for violating campaign finance laws.

However, in the final hours of the last voting night of this legislative year, the senate majority called a recess and, when voting resumed, reintroduced several contentious measures, including a heavily amended SB 571 that had grown to 53 pages.

Among the new provisions, which had been added without public hearing, were a February filing deadline for independent and political committees; the requirement that political and independent committees file annual reports; the clarification that robocalls have to identify who is paying for the call and some contact information, but do not have to use a disclaimer (the words “authorized by” or “not authorized by”); permission for candidates to use contributions to pay down debts from previous election cycles; and the final provision barring public bodies from using public funds to distribute information about a local ballot proposal 60 days before it appears.

House Democrats, who had not seen the provisions before the vote was taken, objected to the bill. “We don’t actually know all the details of the bill because you’re not giving the opportunity to us to actually understand what’s in this bill,” house Democratic floor leader Rep. Sam Singh (D–East Lansing) was quoted as saying in the Lansing News. However, according to the same source, Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) responded, “I disagree with that. We’ve talked about this bill for months.”

No Republicans spoke out, and SB 571 passed 58–48 in the House on December 16 without a single Democrat vote. The amended bill passed in the Senate, also largely along party lines, 25–12.

ADVOCATES URGE ACTION

Organizations such as the Michigan Library Association, the Michigan Association of School Boards, and EveryLibrary developed petitions and called on library leaders, staff, and allies to write Gov. Snyder and request that the bill be vetoed and the provision removed. “We’re asking everyone to contact the governor’s office with a phone call or an email or both, and let him know just how harmful this is to libraries, and that this legislation needs to be revised,” said Madziar.

In addition, EveryLibrary included suggested language for both librarians in Michigan and those out of state to include in correspondence. Chrastka also suggested that supporters take to social media, tweeting directly to Gov. Snyder at @onetoughnerd and using the hashtag ‪#‎VetoSB571. As of December 22, EveryLibrary had delivered more than 2,000 signatures to Snyder. “This is absolutely urgent,” said Chrastka. “There’s no question about it—this has to get vetoed and sent back to be fixed, and these local government provisions have to be stripped out.”

In a statement, American Library Association (ALA) president Sari Feldman echoed the call for Synder to veto SB 571. “While the intent of the Michigan legislature may be to ensure that government employees are proper stewards of public funding,” said Feldman, “in actuality, this broad-sweeping bill prohibits one of their public bodies—the library—from doing one of its main jobs: providing the voters of Michigan unbiased access to information, including factual information about local campaigns and ballot measures. On behalf of librarians around the country, I urge the governor to veto this bill.”

A legal analysis of SB 571 by Kyle K. Courtney, EveryLibrary’s Libraries and the Law Advisor, noted that if the bill was to be voted into law, it would be up to individuals to file in order to prevent its enforcement. While he is not a First Amendment scholar, explained Courtney, “a law giving one office (in this case the office that would fine and/or jail the person who spoke up during those 60 days) unbridled discretion over whether to deny or permit expressive activity carrying political, religious, philosophical or ideological messages seems to violate the First Amendment.”

Librarians and allies across the country hope that with concerted dissent, however, a First Amendment suit will not be necessary. “After the hoped-for veto,” Chrastka added, “we’re going to be doing some heavy digging into where this [revision] came from. If this is a local one-off, that’s still a problem. But if it’s part of the broader agenda about anti-transparency on the part of the Tea Party, then we’d like to understand that this is actually the canary in the coal mine, and it’s not just us, it’s other organizations and other units of government.”

SB571 was enrolled and presented to Gov. Snyder on December 29, giving him 14 days in which to sign or veto the bill. EveryLibrary brought its #VetoSB571 petition with 4,937 signatures, 65 percent of which are from Michigan residents, to Snyder on the 29th as well.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Looks to me like it specifies radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message. Answering a question wouldn’t fit into any of these categories.

    • It could, Matt, if SB571 is interpreted to include a radio call-in show where the director or the library board president was answering questions (within the 60 day window). The language in Sec 57 is broadly worded. The threat of criminal or civil penalties could also create a chilling effect on other responses.

    • I can’t reply to John’s Comment directly, so I am replying to Matt’s.

      So answering questions at the library would be okay? Correct? Someone could walk into the library or call the library or email the library and ask and receive answers to questions about local ballot measures.

      As far as a call in show – it would only be impermissible if the hypothetical library director was ‘on the clock’ right. If the staff member were not using public resources at the moment, then it would be permissible. And if a board member were not compensated, then that too would be permissible?

  2. What are the arguments for SB 571? What do its advocates say is good about the bill, or what problem do they say the bill solves?

    • Cindy Gibbon says:

      Replying to Chris–It appears that the board member or the director on their own time appearing on that radio call-in show is still “a person acting on behalf of a public agency.” So that would mean the bill prohibits that activity.

    • Replying to Cindy –

      But it seems two criteria have to be met – the person needs to be acting on behalf of a public agency AND they need to be using public resources. If they are using no public resources then they are not breaking the law. At least, that is how I read this section of the bill. But really I don’t know the answer, these are genuine questions.

  3. Jimbo Smith says:

    I’ve never read so much hysteria in my live. For once, can’t folks simply go to the bill and read the EXACT 10 lines in question?

    It’s simple… no tax dollars to be used 60 days prior to an election to pay for communications via TV, radio, mail or robocalls for local bond issues.

    Questions for my elected officials… why 60 days? This should NEVER be allowed.

    All folks need to do is create a campaign committee and have it privately funded. That committee can then use its funds and resources for communications by means of radio, television, mass mailing, or prerecorded telephone message.

  4. Derek Marshburn says:

    Savvy piece ! Apropos if people need to fill out a a form , I filled out a fillable form here http://goo.gl/4UuQ01