Left-leaning groups seek to intervene in challenge to new law that restricts corporate speech

Clean Elections Minnesota and "Free Speech For People" filed a request to intervene in the Minnesota Chamber’s lawsuit it filed in June.

Ken Peterson, a board member for Clean Elections Minnesota, testifies during a January 18 state House Elections Committee hearing on HF117, which restricts political speech of some businesses with minimal investment from foreign-baser individuals. (Minnesota House Info/YouTube)

left-leaning elections reform organization is representing a local group hoping to intervene in a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lawsuit that’s challenging a new state law it says unconstitutionally restricts political speech of businesses.

On Friday, the Massachusetts-based advocacy group Free Speech For People, on behalf of Clean Elections Minnesota, filed a motion requesting to intervene in the Chamber’s federal lawsuit that contends a new law governing corporate speech unconstitutionally restricts the political speech of its members’ businesses who have minimal investment from foreign-based individuals and entities.

If the motion to intervene is granted, Clean Elections Minnesota will be a party in the case, aligned with the state defendants, and entitled to the procedural rights of a party, according to a statement from the organization.

“We don’t have a problem with individual foreigners owning shares in American corporations,” said Mary Hartnettexecutive director for Clean Elections Minnesota. “But we need to ensure, as the new law does, that foreign ownership and foreign spending doesn’t impact Minnesota’s elections and take away Minnesotans’ freedom to have their own government.”

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce filed the lawsuit in federal district court on June 30 and names the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi as defendants. Choi was named as a defendant because, as top prosecutor in the Minnesota legislature’s home county, he is responsible for enforcing state law.

The Chamber alleges in the complaint that its “members presently fear criminal prosecution for violations of the statutory prohibitions at issue, which results in members avoiding making certain speech, and thereby chilling their speech.”

“We strongly believe this law is an unconstitutional impingement on the free speech rights of members of the Minnesota business community,” Doug Loon, president and CEO of the Chamber, told Alpha News following the filing. “We look forward to restoring their ability — as ‘people’ in the eyes of the law — to participate in the democratic process.”

Both Clean Elections Minnesota and Free Speech For People lobbied the DFL-controlled legislature in support of the provision, which effectively prohibits companies that have even minimal investment from foreign-based individuals or entities from making political contributions in Minnesota. The House and Senate passed the legislation, along party lines, in April, as a part of the sweeping “Democracy for the People Act” sponsored by Democrats. Gov. Tim Walz signed it into law in May.

The new law ensures access to voter information, and closes dark money loopholes, legal representatives for Clean Elections Minnesota and Free Speech For People said in a press statement.

“The legislature spoke on behalf of Minnesotans and declared that foreign-influenced corporations cannot be allowed to influence our elections,” said Charlie Nauen, a well-known lobbyist at the legislature, whose firm is serving as co-counsel in the case. “We are proud to represent Clean Elections Minnesota and to work with Free Speech For People to ensure this ground breaking law is upheld and enforced.”

Clean Elections Minnesota has lobbied for a number of Democrat-sponsored elections-related legislation at the legislature. Its president, Connie Lewis, is a former vice president for the regional Planned Parenthood chapter. The organization has lobbied alongside FairVote Minnesota for statewide ranked choice voting.

Republican legislators warned provision likely to face legal challenge

In April, Republicans who voted against the “Democracy for the People Act,” argued the provision governing corporate political speech intently did not include the same restrictions on foreign-influenced nonprofit organizations. One such organization is the Center for American Progress, which actually crafted model legislation that mirrors the provision outlined in the lawsuit. The Center for American Progress submitted written testimony in support of the provision when it was heard in a Minnesota House Elections Committee in January.

“This legislation is literally — by its own term — foreign-influenced legislation,” said Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, an attorney who specializes in constitutional litigation. “It’s like the snake eating its own tail … while [this provision] chooses to disable for-profit corporations, it chooses not to regulate certain other entities.”

For that reason, Niska offered an amendment during House floor debate on the bill that would have expanded language in the provision to include nonprofit entities, such as political advocacy organizations and even international labor unions, that receive money from foreign donors.

While Niska’s floor amendment ultimately failed on a party-line vote, the author of the provision, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, admitted it had some merit.

“I am interested in looking into the idea of looking at not-for-profit corporations that are foreign influenced and labor unions and any other group,” Stephenson said. “It’s an interesting discussion … but it wasn’t the problem I was trying to solve when I authored this bill.”

Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.