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Washington Supreme Court delivers chilling ruling, appeal likely

January 20, 2022

In a 5-4 ruling today, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a record $18 million fine for an election reporting violation. BIAW and others worry the excessive fine will chill political speech.

In this case, Washington fined the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association for intentionally violating the state’s election disclosure law in its efforts to defeat an initiative on the 2013 ballot. Initiative 522 would have required some manufacturers to disclose whether their packaged food contained genetically modified organisms (GMO). It was ultimately defeated.

Largest election law disclosure fine in U.S. history

“The $18 million fine is the largest fine for an election law disclosure violation–not just in Washington state– but in the history of the United States,” said BIAW General Counsel Jackson Maynard.  “In contrast, a similar violation by an anti-business group, Food Democracy,  favoring the initiative received a fine of $320,000.”

Chilling free speech

BIAW and several other business groups filed an amicus (or friend of the court) brief arguing such a fine violated the state’s 18th amendment protection against excessive fines and would have a chilling effect on speech. The other groups included:  Enterprise Washington, Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Retail Association, National Electrical Contractors Association, and Washington Food Industry Association.

SCOTUS appeal likely

The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The U.S. Supreme Court recently reversed lower disclosure fines imposed by California as being excessive. BIAW stands by and will likely file another amicus brief on appeal.

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