The Wisconsin Supreme Court announced it decided to hear an appeal involving free speech and campaign-attack advertisements Friday.
The appeal resulting from a defamation lawsuit filed by then-State Rep. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, against Todd Rongstad, a political consultant, was one of 12 cases the state Supreme Court agreed to hear.
The initial lawsuit stemmed from the mailing of an “attack ad” by the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin, which was distributed through Lassa’s district prior to the 2002 election. The ad alleged Lassa had connections with former State Sen. Charles Chvala of Madison and what is known as the Capitol corruption scandal, according to a release.
“[The attack on Lassa] had the potential to do tremendous political damage to her career, but fortunately she was able to survive the attack,” Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, said.
The lawsuit against Rongstad also sought to find the identities of others involved in making and circulating the ad. Initially, Rongstad refused to disclose the names of people from the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin who partook in the mailing.
After Dane County Judge Michael Nowakowski told Rongstad he could face charges of contempt if he did not give up the names, the case was sent to another judge, Maryann Sumi.
Though Sumi stated in court Lassa should win the case because Rongstad would not give the information the Democrat wanted, the two reached an agreement and the case was dismissed.
Under the conditions of their agreement, Rongstad conceded he would pay Lassa’s court costs, and Lassa agreed to allow Rongstad to seek an appeal.
The appeals court decided to send the case to the state Supreme Court because the case is the first of its kind in Wisconsin.
The appeals court said the case is unprecedented because it involves defamation, free speech and free association all pertaining to the issue of a political attack ad.
Wisconsin Supreme Court spokesperson Amanda Todd was unable to comment because there has been no ruling on the case.
University of Wisconsin political science professor Howard Schweber said the case is important to the general public because of its implications in free speech and campaign reform.
“The appellate court ruling is something only lawyers care about, but it’s something everyone should care about,” Schweber said.
Heck said the case deals more with campaign reform than free speech.
“Currently, we have groups that don’t have to disclose the source of their money, how much they spend, being able to attack candidates to promote their own candidates without the public having any idea where the money is coming from or how much is being spent.”
According to Heck, the elections have been “hijacked” by outside groups like the Alliance for Working Wisconsin. He said the groups make vicious attacks without having to be accountable to voters.
“This particular issue illustrates exactly why Wisconsin politics is so badly in need of reform,” Heck said.