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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published October 01 2012

ND property tax critics say judge trampling speech

BISMARCK – Supporters of a failed campaign to abolish North Dakota property taxes said Monday that a judge is trampling their free-speech rights by ordering them to apologize to their opponents.

The supporters outlined their arguments in a court filing, which The Associated Press obtained in advance.

“The more I looked into the law, the more I realized how truly bizarre and inappropriate it is to require a citizen to apologize or make a retraction relating to an honestly held belief that the public official is doing something wrong,” said Lynn Boughey, an attorney representing the property tax opponents.

During the campaign, property tax critics, who formed a loosely knit organization called Empower the Taxpayer, sued several state and county officials, claiming that they deliberately exaggerated the impact of a ballot measure that sought to abolish property taxes.

The measure was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls in June. After, South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick, who dismissed the original lawsuit, ordered the property tax critics to publish an apology in North Dakota newspapers at their own expense. Romanick also ordered the anti-property tax activists to pay almost $26,000 in legal fees spent defending four county officials in the lawsuit.

Monday’s court filing said Romanick did not have authority to require an apology. The judge relied on a judicial rule that allows a judge to impose “non-monetary directives” to punish allegedly frivolous lawsuits, the court filing said.

Boughey said the rule has never been interpreted as giving a judge power to force someone to apologize.

“If these public officials believe that the statements made by Empower the Taxpayer – either verbal or written – are slanderous and libelous, they are free to hire their own lawyer and proceed accordingly,” the filing said.

The filing asks that Romanick reconsider his earlier decision, which was issued in August. It also argues that Empower the Taxpayer should have to pay no more than $300 in legal fees.

Attorney Randall Bakke, who represented the four county officials, said in his own court filing that he believes Romanick’s actions are justified and within his authority.