Landlords in a Michigan city have filed a lawsuit against officials for requiring them to promote voter registration to their new tenants.
"This is a blatant violation of landlords' First Amendment rights," explained Erick Kaardal, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society.
"East Lansing is out of line. By its city code, East Lansing may impose penalties for a civil infraction upon landlords if they do not convey the city's ideological messages about registering to vote to tenants."
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The legal team explained that landlords enter into leases, collect rents, keep buildings up to code and make repairs.
But they object to being "conscripted" by the city to deliver to new tenants the city's voter registration message.
"Some landlords do not want to be compelled to deliver this government message. On March 16, 2023, Thomas More Society attorneys filed suit in federal court to stop East Lansing from compelling an East Lansing landlord to provide voter application forms and information about voter registration to new tenants," the legal team explained.
Its action seeks an injunction barring the city from enforcing its ideology on landlords.
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"By compelling a landlord to inform and provide information to tenants regarding where to register to vote, or by engaging them to act as couriers of the municipality’s ideological messages to prospective tenants, East Lansing is infringing on landlords' rights," Kaardal said. "Registering to vote is irrelevant to a tenant’s decision to enter into a lease agreement with a landlord. The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to refrain from speaking just as much as it protects the right to speak freely. Where East Lansing’s interest is to disseminate an ideology or policy related to voting, no matter how acceptable to some, those interests cannot outweigh the First Amendment right to avoid being the courier of the government’s message."
The filing charges "The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that 'Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'"
But it points out that the city's "Code" orders landlords to provide "information" to tenants.
It states, "At the time occupancy is given to the tenant, the owner or owner’s legal agent shall provide each tenant with specific information on how to register to vote and the requirements to register, notice that election information and further registration information is available on the Secretary of State’s website as well as the City’s website through the City Clerk department, and a copy of the State of Michigan Voter Registration Application."
The city's threat to landlords includes, "The failure of an owner or owner’s legal agent to do any act required by this section shall not be construed to affect the validity of the lease or the enforcement of any of the lease provisions. A violation of this section shall be deemed a civil infraction."
Kaardal likened the orders to "conscripting the local grocer to hand out property tax bills while collecting payment for purchases."
He said, "While engaged in private employment, these landlords are being required to perform a function that the municipal government has decided is important. These two activities don’t belong together in the first place, and then threatening the landlords with civil violations if they don’t wish to participate – that’s just wrong."
He cited a 2020 federal case in which a judge ruled the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis were unconstitutional "for trying to require landlords to provide voter-registration information to new tenants."
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