Free political speech, with what restrictions?

A letter in today’s Wichita Eagle discusses free speech and provides a useful starting point for examining political speech and its regulation.

The writer states: “I believe in free speech and free enterprise, and I’m sure that [U.S. Representative Lynn] Jenkins, the owners of Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity believe in these, too.”

But — and isn’t there always a “but”? — then the writer calls for Jenkins to disclose how much she’s received from Koch Industries in contributions, and also for Americans for Prosperity to reveal its contributions.

I might remind the letter writer that the Federal Election Commission keeps track of the contributions that federal office candidates have received from all sources, and makes that data available to the public. Journalists regularly make use of the data in writing news stories. OpenSecrets.org makes some of that data easier to access and performs analysis that lets citizens better understand political contributions.

Regarding AFP and its contributions: AFP, like other similar organizations, is not required by law to reveal this information. These laws apply regardless of ideology, and there are plenty of organizations on the political left that do the same as AFP. The Center for American Progress comes to mind.

This letter writer, however, seems concerned about only conservative politicians and those individuals and organizations that believe in and promote free markets.

But some of the contributions to organizations like AFP are public knowledge. IRS form 990 documents contain records of contributions made by foundations to organizations like AFP and CAP. These documents are easily available through Guidestar, if the letter writer is interested.

Individual contributions — like the ones I have given to AFP — won’t be there, but the contributions I think the letter writer has alluded to are.

The bigger question is this: Should we require disclosure of contributions to politicians and political organizations like AFP and CAP?

I am reminded of the first amendment to the Bill of Rights, which states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Political contributions are, in my opinion, speech. An important form of speech.

Some people make the case that they want to know who paid for television advertisements, or who paid to rent the hall for a political rally, etc. But laws forcing disclosure of the source of these forms of speech violate the first amendment. Period.

The ability to exercise free speech anonymously is important for both individuals and corporations. Should a shy person, or a person advocating an unpopular cause, be forced to reveal themselves? Should I or the Wichita Eagle require all comment writers to reveal their true name and address, along with how they got the money to buy their computer?

From the perspective of an engaged citizenry, disclosure of who paid for speech diminishes the free discussion and examination of ideas. Conservatives, for example, on realizing that a communication was paid for by a liberal advocacy group, may tune out or discount the message simply because of its source. The same, of course, applies to liberals. This is easy to do. It’s harder to think about the merits of the message and the ideas it contains, and then make up your mind.

Practically, attempts to regulate money in politics invariably fail, as ways are found to circumvent the rules. The result is often less transparency, if transparency is the desired goal.


4 thoughts on “Free political speech, with what restrictions?”

  1. Good post, Bob. The right to privacy in how one spends one’s money is paramount in a free society. Sometimes it’s even a matter of personal safety–homosexual activists have been known to attack supporters of initiatives such as Proposition 8.

    Isn’t it ironic that liberals believe the right to privacy should include the “right” to kill your unborn child, but not your donations to ideological organizations (especially conservative ones)?

  2. The so-called right to privacy does not exist. This was entirely created by an activist Supreme Court. If the right to privacy was “paramount” to a free society, why is it not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution? As far as Proposition 8 is concerned – what state do you live in? Ann, unless you live somewhere in California, I doubt that you have had to deal with homosexual activists promoting Prop 8 (and I really doubt that this is a significant problem anyway).

    There is a very good reason that some entities do not want to disclose their intentions. If Wal-Mart, Exxon, Verizon or Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream is supporting certain legislation, it is for a reason, and usually a very important reason. The effect of anonymity is to conceal the motivations behind legislation. In other words, it is to minimize the knowledge of the voter. An uninformed voter is not a good thing.

    How does a requirement for disclosure constitute a infringement on speech? Is anyone truly restricted by GOVERNMENT? No. If a person is shy, GOVERNMENT action had nothing to do with preventing them from speaking – their own limitations and weaknesses did. If someone is so shy they are embarrassed to give money publicly to a cause, then GOVERNMENT action did not restrict their own action, only the individual’s limitation and weakness did. Speech is by it’s very nature a public act – it is expression in the public arena. If a financial transaction was to be considered “speech” worthy of government protection, then no one would be compelled to disclose any financial transaction about anything.

    Bob, I think this argument is not well thought out, and is not supported by either history or relevant case law. Personally, I believe that individual privacy would be much better served by entirely scrapping the IRS code, and adopting the FAIR tax. That way, there would not be the need to file individual returns by private individuals, and the massive data collection on the private citizen would end.

  3. Well written article, Bob. I agree with your points. Political speech should as free as any other type of speech.

    FYI, the federal law that was passed in 1960 (to protect donors from having to reveal themselves) was passed in order protect NAACP donors. The Democrat run State of Alabama was using intimidation and thuggery against the donors at that time.

  4. Chuck, I never said anywhere that I was harassed by homosexual activists–quit making stuff up. I said some people were, and that’s the truth.

    Now, read your Constitution again. Amendment 9:
    “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” We do have a right to privacy. We can’t be a free people or a free nation without it. Government is not entitled to know everything about our lives and our decisions. That is tyranny.

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