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Published January 27 2011

Bill on political ads draws outrage in North Dakota

North Dakota legislators are considering a bill that would seem to violate First Amendment rights, and it’s sparked a frenzy of controversy for the lawmakers who introduced it.

But, there’s a catch that might clear up any drama: The legislation actually amounts to nothing more than a civics lesson for students from two schools in the state.

The same lawmakers who introduced the bill aren’t advocating for its passage, and they acknowledge the inherent legal problems it would pose.

Senate Bill 2273 calls for a revision in the state’s election laws to prohibit political ads from mentioning a candidate’s name without that person’s written consent.

Independent of each other, students from schools in Mandan and Roseglen, about 80 miles to the northwest, asked legislators to introduce the proposal.

The students’ goal is to eliminate the magnitude of negative ads and political bullying North Dakotans see during election years, said state Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder.

Legislators on the Government and Veterans Affairs Committee are scheduled to discuss the bill today in Bismarck.

Those who introduced the bill were Warner, state Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, and state Reps. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, and Jon Nelson, R-Rugby.

Those legislators acknowledge that, in print, the proposal seems inflammatory and, at worst, is unconstitutional.

But knowing its innocent origins, the lawmakers said they were somewhat taken aback by how extremely the situation blew out of proportion.

Rob Port, a conservative blogger from Minot, issued a call-to-action to his readers last week, accusing the legislators of favoring political censorship.

“As much as we all may get annoyed at times with political advertising, it is an important part of political communication,” Port wrote. “Censoring it is wrong, and undoubtedly unconstitutional.”

Warner and Hawken said state lawmakers agree and that this is a chance to teach children about constitutional rights and the legislative process.

North Dakota’s Legislature is traditionally driven by constituents’ requests – regardless of what they may be, Hawken said.

“In the scheme of things, it has as much value as any other bill, and it allows people in this chamber to revisit things,” Hawken said. “It’s an opportunity to not only teach about the Constitution, but it’s a reminder to us of why we do the things we do.”

Hawken added outrage over the bill’s purpose could have been avoided if concerned residents contacted legislators first.

Nonetheless, the language of the bill still inspired a barrage of e-mails and phone calls.

“The feedback has been some of the most abusive that I have ever received on any issue,” Warner said.

The legislators said though the bill is not intended to become law, it’s not a waste of time.

“North Dakota has one of the most open and accessible political processes in the world,” Warner said. “As a result, we have a plenitude of bills that are redundant or unnecessary, and we don’t begrudge the time that it takes to consider and vote on them.”

Warner added, “For the most part, (bills like this) enliven the process and encourage a rising generation to take ownership in the governance of their state. I think on the whole it’s a great bargain for the people of North Dakota.”

Other legislation

Aside from a contentious, yet non-serious, bill that deals with censoring political advertising, North Dakota lawmakers will also consider other bills this week that could potentially influence the political process or public offices.

Each of these is scheduled for committee hearings on Friday morning in Bismarck:

Source: North Dakota Legislature


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541