A federal judge determined Thursday that the association representing Maine cities and towns was within its rights to campaign against five referendum efforts that would have reduced municipal revenues.

Chief U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr. said in a 56-page ruling that the Maine Municipal Association was exercising “government speech” when it participated in the campaigns in years from 2004 to 2009.

The association was sued by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group that promoted the ballot initiatives, including two so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights proposals and an effort to change the way cities and towns collect motor vehicle excise taxes.

The Maine Municipal Association, a quasi-governmental agency representing 486 cities and towns, opposed the initiatives. That prompted the Maine Heritage Policy Center to file a lawsuit in 2010 claiming the association had violated the group’s First Amendment rights.

The court struck down each complaint.

“The Court holds that the government speech doctrine applies to MMA’s advocacy activities,” Woodcock ruled. “This is another way of saying that MMA has not violated the Plaintiffs’ rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution …”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center recently promoted its case against the municipal association, saying the group had engaged in “scandalous activities.”

The Maine Wire, the center’s news site, has a section dubbed the “MMA files.” The recent promotion is timed with Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to suspend municipal aid for a two years, a proposal the municipal association vehemently opposes.

The policy center is closely aligned with LePage; Tarren Bragdon, its former CEO, led the governor’s transition team in 2011 and the group later claimed to have authored LePage’s first two-year budget proposal.

Christopher G. Lockwood, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, praised the ruling.

“For the past two years, we have endured as Heritage Policy Center used words like ‘scandalous’ and ‘illegal’ in regard to our information and advocacy, legitimate activities that we have been engaged with in Maine since 1936,” Lockwood said in a prepared statement. “We are grateful that Judge Woodcock today put all the claims of free speech violations firmly to rest.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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