By guest writer, author Patrice Johnson

In a move to protect free speech and stop the federal government from conscripting landlords to serve as its mouthpieces, the Thomas More Society filed suit in federal court on March 16.

MI SOS Jocelyn Benson (D) poses with MSU students promoting new on-campus voting.

The complaint seeks to stop East Lansing from compelling an East Lansing landlord to provide information about voter registration and voter application forms to new tenants. The lawsuit seeks permanent injunctive relief, barring the city from enforcing any provision of the city code at issue.

“This is a blatant violation of landlords’ First Amendment rights,” stated Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erick Kaardal. “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 cities’ ideological messages about registering to vote to tenants.”

A skeptical reader might suspect the ordinance, specific to East Lansing, was intended to infuse bias into voter registrations. Students of Michigan State University, based in East Lansing, comprise a significant majority of the city’s tenant population and vote predominantly for Democrat candidates.

Landlords collect rent, keep buildings up to code, make repairs, and manage properties. Voter registration has nothing to do with their businesses.

“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,” explained Kaardal. “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 lawsuit clearly contrasts the landlords’ Constitutional rights with the city’s unconstitutional ordinance:

“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.’”

“City of East Lansing Code of Ordinances, Ch. 6, Art. III Sec. 6-175, § 1006.4 is accurately quoted as follows: ‘Information to be provided at occupancy. 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 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.’”

“Frankly, it’s ludicrous,” Kaardal said. “It’s like conscripting the local grocery cashier to hand out property tax bills while collecting payment for purchases. 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.”

And that’s not just Kaardal’s opinion. He pointed to a 2020 case in which a federal judge declared ordinances enacted by the City of Saint Paul and the City of Minneapolis to be unconstitutional for trying to require landlords to provide voter-registration information to new tenants.

Read the Complaint for Declaration and Injunctive Relief filed on behalf of Michigan landlords on March 16, 2023, in the United States District Court – Western District of Michigan by Thomas More Society attorneys, in Hagan Realty Inc. v. The City of East Lansing, Michigan here [link].

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