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Analysis: Fed Judge's Decision Lets NM Non-Profits Breathe Easier

August 5, 2009

DENVER - A federal judge's decision this week has thawed a frosty situation for New Mexico nonprofit groups. The case involved direct-mail pieces that were sent out before last year's primary election and had been critical of certain candidates.

The state had claimed the educational campaigns - by the Southwest Organizing Project and New Mexico Youth Organized - amounted to electioneering, which would have required the groups to register as political committees. However, Judge Judith Herrera rejected that notion on Monday.

Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU New Mexico, says the decision should bring a sense of relief to New Mexico's nonprofit community.

"There has been a pall of fear that's hovered over nonprofits. I think all of us have been wondering if we were going to be targeted next, simply because we educate the public about matters of public concern."

Opponents, including one of the candidates targeted by the mailings, are dismayed by the ruling, claiming that it opens the door for anyone to start a nonprofit organization with the aim of attacking candidates' positions on hot-button issues. Simonson sees it differently. He believes the decision clears up some of the ambiguity about the rules of the game and the role of nonprofit groups in the political landscape.

"Really, there is a pretty wide open space there to discuss matters of public concern with the public, and to make sure that they understand how their elected officials are actually behaving."

Aaron Dorfman, who directs the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says the ruling affirms the right of nonprofit organizations to perform one of their most important functions.

"That people have the opportunity to organize and advocate on their own behalf, through nonprofit organizations, on the issues and causes that affect their lives."

Simonson predicts an uptick in political involvement from nonprofits on both sides of the political divide, which he says is one sign of a healthy democracy. The New Mexico Attorney General's office has not yet indicated if it will appeal the decision.

Eric Mack, Public News Service - NM