In July 2014, a resident filed a complaint with the Secretary of State alleging the city of Grand Rapids violated the state’s campaign finance law by advocating a yes vote on an impending tax increase.

The disputed passage was in a tax-funded newsletter and read:

“On May 6, voters will have the opportunity to secure our future by dedicating funding to take care of streets, sidewalks, and rights of way, which will have a positive impact on every neighborhood and business.”

The Secretary of State's office ruled this did not violate the one election law provision then in place to restrict tax-funded electioneering, which was a ban on “express advocacy.” Its response read in part:

“In other words, the express advocacy test excludes a communication from the Act's reach unless it specifically urges voters to ‘vote yes,’ ‘vote no,’ ‘elect,’ ‘defeat,’ ‘support,’ or ‘oppose’ a ballot question, using these or equivalent words and phrases. The Department may only consider the text of the communication itself and not the broader context in which it was made in determining whether it is subject to MCFA regulation.”

ForTheRecord says: Many local government and school officials consider the “positive impact (for all)” claim made by the city of Grand Rapids to be factual information. They also believe the law described by the Secretary of State to be all that is needed to regulate their behavior. Some local newspapers agree.

Many homeowners hit with a big tax hike would disagree, and feel aggrieved to see their tax dollars paying to promote an opposing political viewpoint.

That was the rationale for Public Act 269 of 2015, which was signed into law late last year to impose real and unambiguous restrictions on taxpayer-funded electioneering. The new law prohibits public school and local government communications from referencing local ballot proposals in the 60 days before an election.

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Some institutions of higher education have cracked down on free speech. Even in Michigan, universities have speech codes that restrict students’ speech, campus groups have prevented speakers from delivering talks and administrators have stopped individuals from handing out certain literature.

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