State Journal: Not-so-free speech; Amish exemption

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Judith A. Billings, the superintendent of public instruction in Washington State, was fined $250 last month after the state Public Disclosure Commission found that she had improperly used her office to campaign against two ballot initiatives.

One of the referendums, which will cap the growth of state spending and require a two-thirds majority in each house of the legislature to approve new taxes, apparently passed narrowly.

The other proposal, which would have repealed $190 million in alcohol and tobacco taxes, was defeated.

Ms. Billings was a leading critic of the proposals, arguing that they could seriously harm school budgets. The action that led to her fine was writing a column mentioning the issue that appeared in a newsletter distributed to school employees statewide.

Ms. Billings said a former employee of her agency, whose position had been eliminated, filed a complaint alleging that the schools chief had violated a state law barring the use of public facilities and workers for political campaigns.

While she wrote the column in her office, Ms. Billings argued that it was permissible because hers is one of several "constitutional offices'' whose incumbents are permitted to take political actions that "fall within the scope of their constitutional duties.''

Since 48 percent of the state budget is spent on K-12 education and the referendums had fiscal implications, Ms. Billings said, "I think I had not only the authorization but the responsibility to talk about it.''

Ms. Billings said she will appeal the commission's ruling in state court, because it is important to clarify public officials' rights under the ethics law.

The Wisconsin legislature late last month enacted a law exempting Amish schools from certain health and safety rules, allowing a school in the town of Augusta to remain open.

The one-room school was the first opened since 1991, when exemptions for rural schools were removed from state law, and Eau Claire County officials had threatened to close it.

The new law exempts one-room schools run by religious groups from regulations that conflict with their religious beliefs.

Vol. 13, Issue 11

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