The Assault on Free Speech

By Michael J. Reitz

We Americans have long enjoyed the right to financially support our favored causes. Whether our favorite voluntary association is a food bank, church or public policy organization, we value their work to build social capital. Concomitant with the ability to donate one’s resources is the right to do so privately, without the scrutiny of government regulators.

A loud and insistent movement seeks to force all private giving into the public eye. Complaints about “dark money” and the “undue influence of money” inflame concern, but these attacks are designed to squash thoughtful debate about how we should govern ourselves.

The enemies of debate would require individuals report charitable giving: personal information, donation amounts and the names of organizations would be recorded in a government database, available to employers, neighbors and political operatives, not to mention all branches of government.

Political retribution is one consequence of the forced disclosure of one’s private views; polarization is easier than persuasion. A maze of punitive regulations can also be used to stifle speech. Concerns about government surveillance, perhaps once dismissed as paranoid, have been validated by the misdeeds of the IRS and NSA.

Examples of overreaching regulation and retribution abound:

  • A woman in California was forced to quit her job at her family restaurant after protesters boycotted the restaurant because of a $100 donation she gave to an issue campaign.
  • A woman in Arizona recruited her neighbors for a sign-waving effort protesting a local bond. Officials sent her a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that she register a political action committee and comply with electioneering laws.
  • In 2011, a Wisconsin woman was awakened by armed agents threatening to cave in her door. They swarmed in, burst into the bathroom where her partner was showering, and ransacked drawers and closets. Her crime? Serving as an advisor to Gov. Scott Walker, who was being targeted by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a political opponent.
  • The Michigan Education Association sued the Mackinac Center in 2002 in an attempt to secure a list of our donors, presumably to launch intimidation campaigns. We fought back successfully with the help of the Institute for Justice.
  • In 2013, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin sent a letter to the Mackinac Center, demanding to know whether we supported the American Legislative Exchange Council and inviting us to defend our views at a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing.
  • This year the Montana Legislature enacted a law that requires groups to disclose their donors if they spend money on communications that mention a candidate or ballot measure close to an election.

Using the arm of the State to squash debate isn’t new; in the 1950s, officials in Alabama sought to put the NAACP out of business by suing to obtain its membership list. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right of free association protected the NAACP from such demands.

Enemies of debate like to conflate government transparency and private giving. The decisions and actions of government agencies should be open for review. It is quite another matter, however, for government to require the disclosure of private views and donations.

Let’s celebrate — not penalize — the decision of individuals to support causes and improve their communities.

Michael J. Reitz is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This article is reprinted from the July/August 2015 edition of their IMPACT magazine.