CAN responds that they made all efforts to comply with state law and promptly provided additional information requested by Thibodeau’s office. And they provided PJ Media with documentation that seems to flatly contradict the State of Maine’s allegations. While Thibodeau’s letter claims that CAN’s charitable solicitation license expired in November 2007, CAN produced copies of canceled checks cashed by the Maine state treasurer that accompanied their 2008 renewal and registration.
Nothing in what the state has sent to CAN indicates that 2008 registration was in any way defective (or even mentions it), which creates problems for the state’s position, for if the previous year’s registration was in order, and CAN claims to have received nothing to indicate otherwise, their fundraising mailing would have fallen within the 90-day renewal period when the mailing was sent. The state’s claim that their 2009 registration was out of order and that they were fundraising without a license would therefore be moot as the mailing was sent prior to the renewal period’s expiration.
In support of their position that CAN was not properly registered this past April, Thibodeau’s office claims that several pages of CAN’s annual audit were not properly transmitted with their application and notified them of the error by email on April 6. Her letter acknowledges that they received the missing pages on April 21, postmarked on April 13. This constitutes the grounds for the state’s $1,000 fine. Thibodeau confirmed that the state doesn’t send out any official notice that an organization’s application has been approved.
“They have created a black box registration process where if they don’t like what you’re saying, they will go back through your application and determine that your application wasn’t correct, and suddenly you’re violating the law,” Mawyer said. “That’s what we believe has happened in this case.”
Perhaps more troubling for free speech advocates is the state’s claim that CAN needed the governor’s permission in order to use his name on the petition that the group urged supporters to send to him:
8. Governor John Baldacci did not give written consent, or any other consent, to the Christian Action Network to use his name for the purpose of soliciting contributions.
This was the stated basis for assessing the heavier $3,000 fine. Thibodeau’s letter and the consent agreement also allege that the use of Baldacci’s name was intended to suggest his endorsement of CAN. But Mawyer notes that the U.S. Postal Service examines all of their fundraising solicitations, including looking for any implied endorsements, before they are mailed.
“It would be a violation of federal law for us to make any false representation concerning any endorsements, which is one reason why we submit all of our fundraising letters to the Post Office for their approval prior to anything being sent out under our non-profit mailing permit, as was the case with this fundraising package,” Mawyer said. “We have had the Post Office reject packages in the past, and we have rewritten them to get their go-ahead. Now Maine is telling us in essence that even if we get federal approval beforehand, the state retains the right to reject their interpretation and impose their own standard if they disagree with the content of your mailing.”
It is particularly telling that while the state claims that CAN implied the governor’s endorsement, they did not assess any fines based on this allegation, perhaps with the problem of the Postal Service’s prior approval of the CAN mailing in view. But the free speech chilling effect from Maine could be enormous as their interpretation of state law could virtually outlaw any issue mentioning government officials without obtaining their prior written consent. As Mawyer observes, “Imagine not being able to criticize a public official without their express written permission or without any reference to them whatsoever.”
One important outstanding issue following the rounds of correspondence between PJ Media and Thibodeau concerns a public complaint received by her office about the content of CAN’s mailing cited in her May 6 letter. Her letter gives specific dates on all other matters except this one. Mawyer’s concern is that the complaint may have not only preceded the state’s notification of the missing pages to the application, but also their decision to consider CAN’s solicitation license invalid. I specifically asked twice on what date the complaint was received and Thibodeau refused to address the question both times.
“There’s little doubt that our documentary on Islamic terrorist camps operating inside the U.S. and our statements of concern about the spread of radical Islam is at the heart of the state’s actions. And we can’t help but conclude based on the available evidence that if we were ACORN, or any other group advocating some left-wing cause, they would be using a less-than-rigorous scrutiny in their interpretation of the law,” Mawyer said. “Would they ever dare consider applying these standards to CAIR [the Council on American-Islamic Relations]?”
CAN is appealing the fines issued by the State of Maine and is also considering a lawsuit to prevent bureaucrats from using rulings after the fact to go after charitable organizations running afoul of political correctness. If Maine were to prevail in this case, they fear that it would not only be used by groups like CAIR to attempt to discredit CAN’s investigative work, but also be an invitation for Maine and other states to use bureaucratic interpretations to go after other organizations making similar “inflammatory anti-Muslim messages.”