Williamson Strong did not act as a political action committee in the 2014 school board race, an administrative law judge has ruled.
The order handed down this week was in response to an appeal filed by the Williamson County parent group after the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance issued the group fines in May 2015. The group was fined $2,500 fine for failing to register as a PAC by filing a form for appointing a treasurer. A second $2,500 fine for failing to file campaign financial disclosure reports was put on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.
Formed shortly before the 2014 school board race, Williamson Strong portrays itself as a nonpartisan group that simply seeks the best for Williamson County Schools. However, its blog on its website and its Facebook page show that it is an agenda-driven group that supports liberal-leaning causes. The group has repeatedly maligned the concerns of conservative groups, including the Tea Party, Americans for Prosperity and Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project.
Former conservative school board member Susan Curlee, who was elected to the board in 2014, filed a complaint about Williamson Strong with the registry in December of that year, setting the case in motion. Curlee declined comment when contacted by The Tennessee Star on Thursday.
Registry attorney John Allyn told The Star that the registry would decide when it meets in April whether to file a petition for reconsideration or notice to review the findings.
Williamson Strong posted a message on its Facebook page thanking its attorneys with Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC, along with a meme with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that reads, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The post also included a quote from attorney Tony Orlandi saying the ruling “vindicates” the five parents who lead Williamson Strong.
In its decision to fine the group, the registry cited emails between Williamson Strong and school district officials that reflected collaboration as to which candidates to support. The registry also cited the group’s advocacy on its Facebook page and purchase of voter data and technology licensing fees for efforts to support or oppose candidates.
However, in his order this week dismissing the registry’s claims, administrative law judge Michael Begley found that while Williamson Strong spent money on its website and Facebook page, no expenses were made in connection with “express advocacy.”
Begley also said that “reliance on private emails and private meetings is misplaced. The only relevant activity would be the group’s actual statements to potential voters.” The order said that Williamson Strong has “a very general position of support for public schools in Williamson County” and that “the only time individual candidates are listed is when [Williamson Strong] re-posted articles or publications from other sources or via a personal or ‘visitor post’ to the Facebook page.”
A standard of “express advocacy” was not met, Begley ruled, because the group did not use specific language such as “vote for” or “elect” or “cast your ballot for” or other language that was similarly explicit in advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.
Begley also agreed with Williamson Strong’s contention that the group acted as a media outlet, making them exempt from legal definitions with respect to campaign contributions. The group “posted factually accurate information and commentary regarding issues related to public education,” the order said.