(CNSNews.com) - A conservative California group that wanted to provide citizens with an outlet to send e-mails to their legislators is now suing the state for its role in blocking thousands of the messages.
The Campaign for California Families filed the suit Friday in Sacramento after it claims the state's Legislative Data Center blocked and destroyed more than 22,000 "No New Taxes" e-mail messages last week.
"To have the state destroy public records is illegal," said Randy Thomasson, the group's executive director. "And for the state to violate the free-speech rights of citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances is unconstitutional."
The anti-tax initiative was launched last Monday, but by Thursday e-mails started bouncing back and the group's website, SaveCalifornia.com, was pulled down by its Internet hosting company.
Despite the setback, Thomasson is vowing to restart the e-mail campaign and rebuild the website. Until the lawsuit is heard March 21, though, Thomasson has no guarantee that the messages will reach members of the Assembly, Senate and Gov. Gray Davis (D).
That has prompted the California-based United States Justice Foundation to consider a similar lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction based on the alleged First Amendment violations.
Attorney Richard D. Ackerman, the foundation's litigation counsel, said the lawsuit filed in state court addresses the Legislative Data Center's violation of California's public records law, which requires electronic messages to be kept on file for three years.
Jim Gilles, director of the Legislative Data Center, which maintains the state's legislative information systems, declined to comment about the lawsuit. An aide to Davis said the governor had not been served with the suit as of Friday afternoon.
"In this day and age, there's uncharted territory in electronic communications," Davis spokeswoman Hillary McLean said. "Sometimes there can be unintended consequences for the recipient from mail sent by outsiders, either by design or by accident, with attachments or viruses or just by sheer volume."
Ackerman said this is one of the first opportunities for a court to take up the issue of e-mail communications to public officials.
"We're dealing with a new medium to petition government for grievances," he said. "It's no different than a written petition, it just so happens that we now live in an age where these things are done electronically. No longer do you put someone out in front of a grocery store and get people to sign a petition. You can set up an e-mail like what was being done here."
Meanwhile, Thomasson hopes to spread the anti-tax message while California's legislators attempt to solve a budget quandary and huge shortfall.
Before the state began blocking the e-mails, the group estimates about 388 people used the website's form to write Davis and the legislators. In all, nearly 40,000 messages were sent, Ackerman said.
But more important is the number that did not get through, which he said is probably higher than the 22,000 specified in the lawsuit. In addition, he said visitors missed out on the opportunity when the website was pulled down.
It is slowly being rebuilt, Thomasson said, and is now hosted by another Internet service provider.
A spokeswoman for Vortech Hosting, which provided server space for Thomasson's group, confirmed that an official from the Legislative Data Center contacted the company about the flood of e-mails passing through the state's system.
Vortech's customers also experienced delays, spokeswoman Lindsey Griffin said. She noted, however, that a reseller, not Vortech, decided to take SaveCalifornia.com offline.
"Anyone who does this is turned off," Griffin said. "They're not the first one to do it and get turned off because of it. Anyone who comes through here and tries to send 30,000 e-mails in four hours is going to get turned off because it's going to slow down our machines. We have other customers who can't work like that and we can't work like that."
The Campaign for California Families has now turned to Go56.com to get back online.
"If the state of California wants to be ethical, they wouldn't stop the people's voice," Thomasson said. "It's easier for the state to discriminate against one entity than to penalize all the people individually. However, the net result is the same: The people of California who care about stopping taxes ... their voice has been silenced."
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