Earlier this afternoon, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission took a quiet but significant vote to overturn a rule barring city candidates from mentioning their opponents in their statements for the city's voters' guide. The guide  goes out to every Seattle resident. The change won't go into effect soon enough to impact the August 16 primary, but could affect voters' guide statements for the November general election.[pullquote] Opponents of the rule argued that it violated candidates' right to free speech.[/pullquote]

Proponents of the now-former ban argued that allowing candidates to talk about their opponents would allow voter's guide statements to devolve into yet another forum for mudslinging. Opponents of the rule argued that it violated candidates' right to free speech, and pointed out that when a candidate challenges an incumbent, the election is effectively a referendum on that incumbent; barring challengers from talking about the incumbent creates an uneven playing field. Additionally, the voters' guide may be the only opportunity for candidates with little or no money to get their message out to voters.

In 2001, challenger Grant Cogswell tried to criticize incumbent Richard McIver in his voters' guide statement, but was rebuffed by the ethics commission. Cogswell, backed by the ACLU, sued to overturn the rule but was ultimately rebuffed in 2003, when an appeals court ruled that the voters' guide constituted a "limited public forum" where free-speech rights could be limited. In its unanimous vote today, the commission agreed that the rule was constitutional, but opted to overturn it anyway.

Today's vote constitutes a victory for free speech---and could inaugurate a new era of candid indictments from challengers in city races.
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