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.