A trade group representing manufacturers has asked the Washington Supreme Court to overturn a record fine against the food industry for making anonymous donations to defeat a GMO-labeling initiative in 2013.
In an amicus brief filed last week, the National Association of Manufacturers argues lower courts were insensitive to internet-fueled reprisals that businesses face.
By funneling campaign contributions through an umbrella organization, food-makers preserved their right to band together and take political stands, according to the manufacturers.
“Without anonymity, speakers face boycotts, harassment, and even threats of violence, all for engaging in activity at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection,” the amicus brief states.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Oct. 22 in Olympia on whether the Grocery Manufacturers Association violated the state’s election law by not naming the companies that spent $11 million to defeat the initiative.
The association collected the money and reported itself as the donor. Under pressure from state regulators, the association disclosed shortly before the election that the money came from brand-name companies such as PepsiCo, Nestle USA, Coca-Cola, General Mills and ConAgra Foods. The initiative was narrowly defeated.
The court also will decide whether to uphold the largest-ever fine levied in the U.S. for a campaign finance violation. An appeals court reduced the fine to $6 million from $18 million, but it still far exceeds any other election-law penalty.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is seeking to restore the $18 million fine. The grocery association intentionally tried to deceive voters, his office argues. The grocery association argues it thought it was complying with Washington law.
The proposal to label products with GMO ingredients motivated the most-expensive election in Washington’s history. It came a year after a bruising fight in California.
Anticipating the Washington initiative and battles in other states, the grocery association set up a campaign fund and collected $14 million from members. Most of the money was spent in Washington.
A Thurston County judge ruled the association broke the law by not initially reporting the contributions as coming from individual companies.
The appeals court, though lowering the fine, upheld the conviction.
The appeals court agreed with the attorney general that the grocery association exaggerated the harm to its members for opposing the initiative in California.
In its brief, the manufacturers association looks ahead. “The internet has only magnified the potential for harassment,” its brief states.
The brief cites a website that advocates boycotting companies and executives that support the Trump administration. Getting off the list takes renouncing support for Trump’s re-election.
The attorney general has not yet responded to the brief.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 allowed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to withhold its membership list from Alabama.
The manufacturers association cites the case as precedent for withholding the names of donors to protect them from harassment.
In an earlier brief, the attorney general argued the exemption should be reserved for groups that face significant government or private hostility.