On-campus organizing bill faces third lawsuit

Montana Democrats challenge Senate Bill 319

By: - October 12, 2021 6:27 pm

The stairs of the Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

A law passed this session limiting electioneering on college campuses is facing another legal challenge.

Plaintiffs including the Montana Democratic Party and the campaign committee of Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester filed suit in U.S. district court challenging Senate Bill 319 on Tuesday, arguing that a provision added to the bill in the final days of the 2021 session that bans political groups from organizing “inside a residence hall, dining facility, or athletic facility operated by a public postsecondary institution” infringes on the First Amendment.

It’s the third suit challenging the law since it was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May. As introduced, SB319 was a relatively simple campaign finance bill that allowed for the creation of joint political fundraising committees. But near the end of the session, the bill was moved into a free conference committee, where Republican lawmakers added two main new provisions: one concerning judicial recusal policies and another going after on-campus political organizing.

The law, the plaintiffs say, doesn’t only prevent political committees like Tester and the MDP’s from doing their work, it also suppresses political speech and abridges the ability of young people to vote and engage politically.

“The Student Organizing Ban would prohibit any college student who lives in a dorm or regularly eats in a dining hall from undertaking or participating in any of the activities prohibited by the Student Organizing Ban if that student undertook them in conjunction with any political committee,” the complaint reads. “Put another way, the Student Organizing Ban forbids students from engaging in constitutionally protected activities and core political speech in the place they call home.

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The plaintiffs are asking the court to enjoin enforcement of the bill, which carries with it a $1,000-per-violation civil penalty. Tester and the Democratic Party are represented by Helena attorney Mike Meloy and Abha Khanna of the Seattle-based Elias Law Group, which has mounted several court challenge against legislation on behalf of Democratic causes.

The complaint brands SB319 as an attempt to suppress youth turnout in response to record numbers in the last election — the number of constituents under 29 who voted in 2020 was up 40 percent from the 2016 election.

“The Student Organizing Ban is a surgical attack on the successful organizing efforts and increased political power of Montana’s youngest voters,” the complaint reads. “By targeting only university residence halls, dining facilities, and athletic facilities, the Legislature made clear its intent: preventing young, newly enfranchised Montanans from participating fully in the political process.”

SB319 is the subject of two existing lawsuits. One, filed by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, challenges a suite of laws that affect college campuses, including legislation expanding permitless concealed carry of firearms, arguing they usurp the authority of the Montana Board of Regents to make campus policy. The second, filed by Forward Montana, a political advocacy organization, focuses not only on the substance of SB319 but also the free conference committee process by which it came about, arguing it violates constitutional provisions limiting bills to a single subject. A judge in Lewis and Clark County denied a motion by the state to dismiss that suit last week, allowing the challenge to continue.

Tuesday’s suit also references the conference committee process, though it doesn’t directly challenge its legality.

“The State cannot demonstrate even a legitimate interest—let alone a compelling one—in imposing content-based restrictions on Plaintiffs’ interactions with Montana’s public college students, not least because of the roughshod way the Student Organizing Ban was passed,” the complaint reads.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.

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