Images-34 FREE SPEECH — The Metropolitan News-Enterprise in Los Angeles reports that the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a public entity does not engage in illegal campaign activity by disseminating a list of projects and services that will be curtailed or eliminated if a tax-cutting ballot measure is approved. As staff writer Kenneth Ofgang noted,

In a unanimous decision, the high court agreed with the plaintiffs that a one-sided presentation of issues to be voted on may constitute illegal electioneering, even without an express exhortation to vote a particular way.  But the justices upheld lower court rulings in favor of the City of Salinas, saying it did not cross the line when the council approved the list of cuts and publicized them on the city website and in a newsletter mailed to all citizens a month before the election.

The city placed a substantial amount of information about the cuts on its website, including council minutes, a financial analysis by the city manager, a slide presentation detailing program and service cuts in each city department, and the city staff’s response to the alternative proposals by Measure O backers.

The city also prepared a one-page document summarizing the cuts, which was posted on the website and made available at City Hall and in the public libraries. A copy of that document—which, among other things, named specific libraries and recreation centers that would be closed—was included in the city’s October 2002 newsletter, along with eight pages of details.

Within days of the mailing of the newsletter, Measure O supporters sued the city in Monterey Superior Court, accusing the city of having produced “campaign materials” in opposition to the initiative.

See our earlier discussion of the case, Vargas v. City of Salinas, here. The high court's analysis suggests that public entities will not be faulted for ordinary expenditures for ordinary public communications media like websites and resident newsletters that contain the agency's views of the effects of proposals on the ballot, even if the opposing views are not reflected.  What is most likely to be found unlawful is extraordinary expenditure for extraordinary public communications media or characteristic of campaign advertising or public relations marketing.