You Can Fight Back When Officials Use Taxpayer Dollars for Politics

By Scott Pullins 


Every few years or so, we see examples of cities attempting to pass tax increases with public dollars, school districts blatantly propagandizing for school levies, and other nonsense by officials trying to stick it to taxpayers.  Fortunately, there is a very effective way to fight back and help eliminate these unfair uses of taxpayer dollars.  And it likely won’t cost you a dime.


Under federal law, when a local government unit places a vote yes for a school levy sign at a local school, or includes a vote yes flier in an official newsletter, or even posts a link to a political campaign on a government website, those officials open up a public forum.  And when this public forum is used by the governmental unit for partisan political speech they must then provide equal access to all views on the particular issue.  


So, when this occurs, fiscally conservative organizations like Cincinnati’s COAST, the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, and the Ohio Taxpayers Association have gone to court.  EDITOR’S NOTE – The author of this article is the founder of the Ohio Taxpayers Association.


With these lawsuits, attorneys for organizations like Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center, Chris Finney of COAST, and David Langdon have filed complaints alleging that these governmental authorities are violating the constitutional free speech rights of the groups.  They ask for equal access to the public forums, whether it’s a city website, a school district lawn, or space in a newsletter.  They almost always win because these governmental units are blatantly violating their clients’ constitutional rights and the law is very clear.  


The nonprofit groups are then granted equal access to these forums and typically, temporary and permanent restraining orders by the court to legally enforce that access.  And then, most importantly, the governmental units are required to pay the attorney fees for these nonprofit groups.


Once burned these governmental units tend not to repeat these unfair activities.  This is because they are only using these resources because it gives them an unfair advantage in the political process and it’s not their money they’re spending, it’s the taxpayers.  But when this is highlighted and then the governmental unit is required to pay attorney fees for the nonprofits, public pressure usually brings a halt to these public official shenanigans.


The problem, however, is that there are lots of local governmental units in Ohio.  In fact, according to Governing magazine, the current total is 3,842.


And these governmental units are continually coming up with new schemes to fleece taxpayers while stomping on the rights of their political opponents. Take the City of Shaker Heights for example.


In 2012, Shaker Heights resident Mark Zetzer formed a group, called the Shaker Heights Taxpayers Union.  The purpose of this group was to oppose a city income tax increase that would appear on the August 7th ballot.  As part of Mr. Zetzer’s efforts, he created a logo for the group that parodied the official logo of the City of Shaker Heights.  


In response, the City Law Director, using taxpayer dollars, his public office, and on city letterhead, sent a cease and desist letter to Mr. Zetzer threatening costly and complicated trademark litigation if he didn’t stop using the logo.  Zetzer did so, but he also contacted Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center who filed suit in federal court.  Thompson, interviewed for the Cleveland Plain Dealer said that “an hour’s worth of research on the law director’s part would have revealed that trademark protection doesn’t apply to non-commercial speech.”  The court issued an injunction prohibiting the city from hindering the taxpayer group’s use of the logo.


Or take Maple Heights Mayor Jeffery Lansky.  He sued a member of the Maple Heights City Council and his wife after they questioned his job performance on a local blog they operated.  This case, also litigated by the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law resulted in not only a dismissal of the frivolous lawsuit, but an order of sanctions of nearly $10,000 against the mayor and his attorney.  


According to Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center, “both the First Amendment and Ohio Revised Code Section 9.03 strictly prohibit local governments from spending public funds on or otherwise advocating for one side or the other in any election, and further strictly prohibit government from stifling speech on either side - - whether through limiting signage, threatening campaign finance violations, or any other tactic.”


So, if you witness the use of taxpayer dollars or forums for political purposes, don’t lose hope.  You can fight back.  Contact the organizations referenced in this article or even contact 3rd Rail Politics through our confidential Share a Tip service.