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Court rules judges can order groups to list contributors of attack ads

MADISON - Election reform advocates are hoping a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling Thursday will force special interest groups to reveal the names of people who contribute to funding political attack ads against candidates.

The court ruled that judges can force political action groups to release the names of their contributors if the ads they run are potentially libelous.

The case involved an attack mailing sent out by group known as the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin headed by Todd Rongstad. The mailing implied that state Senate candidate Julie Lassa was directly connected to the extortion charges against former Senate Majority leader Chuck Chvala.

Lassa's attorney Ed Garvey calls the ruling an important step towards eliminating what he calls anonymous "slime ads." He says it's difficult enough to get good people to run for office when they have to raise money, but he says if they all have to face anonymous attacks that are libelous and they have no way to fight back, it will eliminate the chance of getting good people to run for office. Garvey says the ruling is an important step towards cleaner campaigns.

But an attorney who represents the Wisconsin Realtors Association says the ruling isn't likely to have any impact on the number or the nature of political attack ads. The association wasn't involved in this case, but does fund political ads.

Mike Wittenwyler says the court actually made it easier for groups to protect their contributors' anonymity. He says it provides a "road map" to organizations that want to engage in this kind of activity on how to react when a defamation lawsuit is filed against them. He says it's encouraging to political speech because the court embraces political speech and embraces the reality that it's going to occur.

Still, Rongstad's lawyer Michael Crooks says he plans to ask the court to re-consider the ruling citing a dissent by Justice Prosser that the ruling will chill free speech rights during political campaigns.