A federal judge has declared unconstitutional a 2001 law passed by the Utah Legislature that banned payroll deductions for political organizations for employees of school districts and other government entities.

In her ruling published Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell found that the law served no "compelling state interest" in limiting the ability of school districts and other governmental entities to offer voluntary payroll deductions for their employees for organizations like the Utah Education Association. The judge also said the law violated government employees' freedom of speech.

UEA and five other labor organizations sued the state over the law.

"It shows that free speech and the First Amendment still are alive and well in Utah, notwithstanding the opinion of some of our legislators," Utah Education Association general counsel Michael McCoy said.

For years UEA had been a thorn in the side of some lawmakers.

The UEA is a political force credited with repeatedly helping to thwart voucher and tuition tax credit legislation. Its political action committee often gives money and manpower to candidates opposing such measures. The organization is also known for organizing teacher walk-outs in opposition to legislation.

But the Voluntary Contributions Act dented the UEA PAC's fund-raising abilities. PAC funds went from $636,000 to less than $300,000 in a three-year span, a Deseret Morning News review of PAC reports found last fall.

Campbell said because the law is "content-based," meaning a law that restricts speech on specific subjects, it is subject to strict scrutiny. The statute makes it unlawful for any public employer in Utah to grant an employee's request to make voluntary contributions to political funds sponsored by labor organizations through payroll deductions.

The Utah Attorney General's Office had argued that the law did not discriminate based on the political message or view of any organization. The state still allowed payroll deductions to certain charity organizations.

"The fact that the statute is viewpoint neutral makes no difference," Campbell wrote, adding she found that the law restricted free speech.

The Attorney General's Office claimed that because governmental entities, such as cities and service districts, were created by acts of the Utah Legislature, the Legislature had a right to control their payroll functions. "Neither the facts nor the applicable law supports the state's argument," wrote Campbell, adding that payroll systems of counties, cities and school districts are under direction and control of those local governments.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Roberts said the Legislature acted with complete authority when it passed the law and still understands that it has authority over state government entities.

The state has 30 days to decide if it will appeal Campbell's decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Roberts said the office will have to confer with leaders of the Legislature before deciding whether or not to appeal.

Now, with the ruling, the 18,000-member teachers' union plans to work through the implications of the judge's ruling with school districts and superintendents and hopes to have PAC payroll deductions up and running in the next few weeks, McCoy said — just in time for the 2006 election.

"If the Legislature wants to get into true campaign reform, deal with the (corporations) and big contributors," McCoy said. "But this (law) was clearly an attempt by conservatives in the Legislature to stifle unified political action of the school teachers."

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com jtcook@desnews.com