News & Classical Music from Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

School leaders challenge 'gag order' with lawsuit

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio


Local government leaders and school officials in Michigan are challenging a new state elections law in federal court.

The law limits how local government and education officials can talk about local ballot questions, banning them from using public funds to send informational communications about ballot questions – via mass mailings, radio, television, or recorded phone messages - 60 days before an election.

Free speech rights

Seventeen officials listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit call the new law a "gag order" that violates their rights to free speech and due process. They say that’s because the new requirements are overly broad. And they claim the state has no compelling interest to impose such limitations.

"If I were to perform my duty, as I have performed it over the last 18 years, I would be subject to a fine, a jail sentence and ... a misdemeanor – all because I tried to do my job," said Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons.

"I’m frankly dumbfounded as to how I might explain to the thousands of elementary students in our schools how this new law is not an infringement on our rights," said Dr. Robert Livernois, superintendent of Warren Consolidated Schools.

The group is seeking an immediate injunction to block enforcement of the law while the case plays out in court. 

The controversial measures contained in the bill were added late at night on the last day lawmakers met in 2015. It quickly passed both the state House and Senate without any committee hearings or public discussions on the new provisions. A number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they did not fully understand what they were voting on.

Supporters of the law say it’s necessary to keep taxpayer dollars from being used to influence local elections.

Impacts Up North

At least five schools in northern Michigan with bonds on the ballot this spring are dealing with the state’s new campaign rules.

Kalkaska Public School district is less than sixty days from their March bond vote on technology funding. So they’re in the so-called "gag order" period right now.

Superintendent Karen Sherwood says it’s limiting how many people they can reach with information on bond proposals and how they get the information out to the voters. That means no mass mail or email, automated messages, television or radio.  

They used send mass emails to parents; they can’t anymore. They also can’t send an automated phone message to constituents the day before the vote reminding them to head to the polls. 

Sherwood does not think this is a good thing.

"I mean we should be providing information to community members and public," she said. "And we don’t do it in a way that we’re telling people how to vote."

The district is sending information home with kids in backpacks and posting on their Facebook page instead.

The reality is a bit different for the Northport Public School. They’re hoping for money for school repairs.  

"Northport’s pretty small," said Superintendent Chris Parker. "Most of the things passed in the gag order have had to do with mass communications."

So Northport can continue spreading information about the bond they’re trying to pass the way they did before, which Parker says was mostly face to face.

Voters in Northport also go to the polls March 8th.