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Zimmerman Files Lawsuit Challenging City Campaign Finance Limits

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Callie Hernandez/KUT News
A lawsuit filed by councilmember Don Zimmerman argues that campaign fundraising restrictions violate First Amendment rights.

District 6 City Council member Don Zimmerman filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the City of Austin's campaign finance restrictions, which he argues violate First Amendment freedoms.

In particular the suit addresses fundraising caps and blackout periods, arguing that these restrictions impede the council member's ability "to serve as a strong voice of fiscal restraint and liberty on the Council...[and] to communicate my views with my constituents and my city," according to the press release from Zimmerman's office.

Zimmerman is challenging the "Blackout Period" that restricts candidate fundraising to the six months prior to a council election and the post-election dissolution of campaign funds. He's also protesting the $350 limit on donations from individuals. [Read Zimmerman's complaint here.]

“I’ve seen people who could be bought for a hamburger," Zimmerman says. "I’ve seen other people who couldn’t be bought for a million dollars. So, I’ve never understood this idea $350 is acceptable, but $351 means you’re being bribed or you’re being bought. I’ve never understood the rationale behind these arbitrary limits.”

In the press statement, Zimmerman's attorney Jerad Najvar called the fundraising restrictions "arbitrary." 

Peck Young of the ACC Center for Policy and Political Studies says that while he does think there's a First Amendment argument that could be made against campaign finance limits, he doubts Zimmerman's suit will make it far.

"We’ve litigated this in Austin." Young says he worked on a similar case about a decade ago, when then-mayoral candidate Marc Katz challenged campaign restrictions.

"...the judge found that that was not the case, the limits weren’t chilling, and he upheld the limits. Katz was running for mayor, he did not choose to appeal, and that ruling is in place for the city of Austin," Young says.

He says that if city ordinances have changed since then, Zimmerman could try to argue that the ruling only applies when it comes to those laws in particular. Otherwise, Young says, Zimmerman's team will face difficulty trying to go against the ruling already on the record.

Zimmerman's case is currently pending in federal court in the Western District of Texas, Austin Division.