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Federal Court Rejects Lobbying Commission Effort To Block NYCLU Challenge To New York’s Lobbying Statute In Free-Speech Billboar

A federal court this morning ruled that the New York Civil Liberties Union could proceed with its lawsuit challenging the New York State Lobbying Commission’s effort to treat an NYCLU free-speech billboard as lobbying. This ruling comes as hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons is challenging in state court an effort by the Lobbying Commission to treat a public rally as lobbying.

The NYCLU filed its case in early November 2003 after the Lobbying Commission demanded that the organization report information about a billboard sponsored by the NYCLU outside a shopping mall in April 2003 concerning the issue of free speech in private, shopping malls. The billboard’s text read:

“Welcome to the mall. You have the right to remain silent. Value free speech.”. The NYCLU had sponsored the billboard in response to a highly-publicized March 2003 arrest of a patron at the mall for wearing an anti-war T-shirt. During the time the billboard was up, the NYCLU also was engaged in lobbying in support a New York State Assembly bill bearing on the same issue. The Lobbying Commission has taken the position that NYCLU sponsorship of the billboard is lobbying, even though the billboard makes no mention of any legislation.

The NYCLU case contends that the First Amendment protects the billboard and bars the Lobbying Commission from investing the NYCLU about the billboard. Shortly after the case was filed, the Commission withdrew its request. One month later, however, it again demanded the information, only to withdraw it yet again when the NYCLU returned to court. The Commission then asked the court to dismiss the case. In today’s ruling, federal judge Loretta Preska rejected that effort, citing to the Lobbying Commission’s “contradictory past behavior” and “repeated reversals of position.”

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said, “We now intend to pursue vigorously our challenge to the Lobbying Commission’s effort to vastly expand the reach of the state’s lobbying laws. The Lobbying Commission has no right to investigate organizations engaged in general advocacy.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman added, “Today’s ruling is an important step towards protecting the First Amendment rights of New York’s advocacy organizations.”

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