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Scales of justice

HELENA — A national gun-rights group has filed a lawsuit seeking to strike down parts of Montana's new campaign finance law as an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

The National Association for Gun Rights wants to send mailers to voters about political candidates' position on guns, but worries the law would brand it a political committee subject to disclosure of its donors and spending, the group said in the lawsuit.

The Virginia-based issue-advocacy group lost a similar lawsuit it filed in 2012, three years before state lawmakers strengthened disclosure requirements in the Montana's campaign laws. Then, the organization was seeking a federal judge's ruling that it could send mailers criticizing then-gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock's position on guns without having to file disclosure reports.

The group now takes issue with Montana's new requirement that every mailer or ad that includes the name or image of a candidate is considered an "electioneering communication" subject to disclosure, even if the ad doesn't expressly support or oppose the candidate, attorney Matthew Monforton said.

"It's a breathtaking expansion of Montana's jurisdiction over political speech protected by the First Amendment," Monforton said.

The gun-rights group wants the electioneering communication provision ruled unconstitutional. It also is challenging another provision requiring details about a candidate's particular votes in communications about that candidates' voting record.

Finally, the organization is asking a judge to declare that its 2012 mailer attacking a Republican legislative candidate's position on guns is not express political advocacy.

Such a ruling could be used as a defense against recent findings by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl that the mailers required the group to register and report with the state.

Motl has filed lawsuits against several candidates and nonprofit corporations like the National Association for Gun Rights for violating campaign laws in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

The lawsuit is the second legal challenge to the new campaign law. The Bopp Law Firm, which successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 to throw out a Montana law limiting some corporate spending in elections, is representing plaintiffs who filed suit last year.

Motl said Tuesday that he has not been served the gun-rights group's lawsuit. He has said the regulations were crafted to increase transparency after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited independent corporate spending in elections.

"It's not a good day for Montanans when somebody challenges reporting and disclosure," Motl said. "It's the foundation of democratic involvement in the electoral process."

The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Helena.

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