Victory for Free Speech:

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 19, 2004

Washington, D.C.—The Michigan Court of Appeals today threw out a lawsuit filed by the Michigan Education Association that attempted to punish the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank that accurately quoted the union’s president in a fundraising letter. The Court stated that discussion on matters of public interest, such as school choice, should enjoy broad protection under the First Amendment and that there was no evidence the Mackinac Center’s letter attempted to mislead its readers into believing the union president endorsed the Center’s overall mission.

On September 27, 2001, Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Luigi Battaglieri said, “. . . quite frankly, I admire what they [the Mackinac Center] have done over the last couple of years entering into the field as they have and being pretty much the sole provider of research to the community, to the public, to our members, to legislators . . . .” The Mackinac Center then drew from that quote in a letter to its supporters and potential supporters pointing out that even an individual who usually disagrees with the Center has recognized its effectiveness.

“This decision is a huge victory for free speech in Michigan and one that will reverberate nationwide,” said Clark Neily, an Institute for Justice senior attorney, which is litigating the case pro bono on behalf of Mackinac Center. “The decision is also a vindication of the Mackinac Center’s claim that it had every right to inform potential supporters that the president of the Michigan Education Association told a room full of reporters that he admires what the Center has done. The MEA’s attempt to enlist the court system in its effort to suppress and censor that news has been firmly rebuffed.”

In its seven-page opinion, the Court stated, “[W]e conclude that the [Freedom Fund letter] falls squarely within the protection of the First Amendment for discourse on matters of public interest.” The Court went on to write, “It is highly unlikely that the recipients of the letter would conclude that Battaglieri was suddenly supportive of Mackinac’s positions notwithstanding the longstanding, well-known and sharp differences of opinion between Mackinac and the MEA in the past. Further, the article itself belies such an interpretation by noting that Battaglieri’s ‘union is generally at odds with the Mackinac Center.’” The Court concluded, “To avoid summary disposition, plaintiffs had to come forward with sufficient evidence to prove actual malice ‘by clear and convincing evidence…[which is] a ‘heavy burden’ far in excess of the preponderance sufficient for most civil litigation.’ The record reveals no such evidence here.”

“We hope the MEA now stops using teachers’ dues to fight a losing battle against the First Amendment,” said Joseph Lehman, the Mackinac Center’s executive vice president. “The court has affirmed our right to quote the MEA’s president when he says he admires what the Mackinac Center has done. There is a lesson in this. If you hold a news conference, prepare to be quoted.”

This was a case being watched by both education reformers and teachers’ unions nationwide.

“Across the nation, conservative and libertarian think tanks like the Mackinac Center are very effective at implementing educational reforms opposed by the teachers’ unions,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “This case was an attempt by the teachers’ unions to intimidate not only the Mackinac Center, but also its opponents elsewhere. That is what makes this victory especially important.”

Neily concluded, “Unlike the Michigan Education Association, the Mackinac Center depends on voluntary contributions for its financial support. This decision makes clear that the Mackinac Center has a perfect right to quote the MEA and its leaders in fundraising materials when they go out of their way to acknowledge the effectiveness of the Center’s work, as Mr. Battaglieri did at a press conference two years ago.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a 16-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research institute that studies state and local policy questions on topics including education, labor law, fiscal policy, economic development and the environment. The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit public interest law firm that litigates in defense of free speech and other constitutional rights.