Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Disclosure of names on controversial issues means less free speech

Here's a very good summary of why the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board's overreach with disclosure of donors on ballot issues will hinder free speech.

Anthony Sanders, earlier this summer
points out that
The First Amendment protects anonymous speech. This is especially true when that speech is controversial. When a citizen comments on an issue, but fears retribution from those who disagree, it is that citizen’s right to be free from the government publicly “outing” her identity. That’s something the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, from the NAACP not having to disclose its donors in 1950s labama, to anonymous pamphleteers remaining anonymous in the 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. These cases follow from the obvious proposition that disclosure chills speech.
The Campaign Finance Board is now changing the rules of the game midstream.
The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, unfortunately, has chosen the opposite view. The board had a long-standing policy of not requiring organizations who donate to ballot campaign committees (committees that spend money to support or oppose ballot issues) to disclose their donors. The organizations’ donations are already disclosed by the campaign committees they give to, but the donor—the organization—did not have to say where it got its money from.

Until now. The board just announced it will adopt a new approach where nonprofit corporations who donate over $5,000 to ballot campaign committees must disclose donors of over $1,000. It is not a coincidence that this accompanies a very controversial ballot issue that Minnesotans will vote on in the 2012 elections: whether to adopt a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.

The rule will undoubtedly chill speech on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate. Many people may want to give to organizations who may in turn contribute to groups campaigning on the issue, but will chose not to because they don’t want their private political views broadcast on the internet (which is what disclosure means in this day-and-age).
And of course this raises the question of what purpose the rule services beyond a fixation with where individuals stand on the Minnesota Marriage Protection Amendment. None really.
What purpose does this rule serve? Voters can decide where they stand on the issue without knowing where others stand, and they have no more right to know who is financially backing speech about the amendment than they have a right to know which way anyone will vote on it. But that’s the whole point--outing people who disagree with you on the issue. Proponents of the disclosure law want to be able to demonize those on the other side, and they can’t do that without forcing them to disclose their identities.

Criticizing those who disagree with you is perfectly valid in a free society. What’s not is the government forcing people to disclose information, including their identities, that they’d rather keep private.

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