Wisconsin appeals political ad disclosure ruling

Monday, March 2, 1998


MADISON, Wis. (AP)-Wisconsin’s attorney general would like the state Supreme Court to settle a dispute involving election officials and businesses concerning political advertising.


Attorney General James Doyle Jr. is appealing a lower-court decision affecting the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce association (WMC), Department of Justice spokesman James Haney says.


Doyle wants the Supreme Court to settle the issue before this year’s election campaigns are fully under way, Haney said.


The state Elections Board attempted to fine WMC for refusing to disclose its sources of money for television spots that talked about some state legislators during 1996 election campaigns.


WMC insists it is unaffected by the disclosure rule because the commercials did not specifically ask listeners to vote against or for a candidate.


Doyle’s office said Feb. 27 it would appeal a January decision by a Circuit Court in Madison. The court ruled that state officials cannot force WMC to show how it paid for the advertising.


WMC will be ready to defend itself against the appeal, its president James Haney said.


“It is always disappointing to have these things drag on and on and on, but we think, if this goes to a higher court, we will prevail,” Haney said.


One of the commercials criticized Democratic Sen. Lynn Adelman, who won re-election and who since has become a federal judge in Milwaukee.


The commercial showed a picture of Adelman and talked about his voting record.


“That’s wrong. That’s liberal. But that’s Lynn Adelman,” it said.


Judge Sarah O’Brien ruled the board lacked clear rules for groups like WMC to follow when buying advertising.


However, future advertisements that do not ask people to vote for or against a candidate can be regulated by the board, she said.


The state can create standards that don’t go against free speech rights in the Constitution, she added.


The board instructed its staff Feb. 4 to suggest a way to regulate “issue advocacy” advertising during political campaigns.


It deadlocked 4-4 on a proposal to appeal the judge’s ruling.


State law requires groups to register with the board and file financial statements if they spend money for political purposes.


However, state and federal courts have ruled that groups like WMC do not have to register unless their advertising features “express advocacy,” or tells people to vote for or against a candidate.


WMC says it spent more than $400,000 in all on radio, television and direct mail advertising during the 1996 elections.


Lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Charles Chvala, D-Madison, successfully sued to stop negative interpretation of their voting records.


Related story:

  • Wisconsin business group claims victory in flap over ‘issue advocacy’ ads 1.22.98