Note the following post was authored by Terry Taylor, a Common Cause Georgia board member. It should be read, and sits alongside, with the previous post by another CCGA board member, Jon Sinton.
501(c)(4) Donor Disclosures and Free Speech Many organizations such as Common Cause that are calling for 501(c)(4) donor disclosure have a sincere desire for openness. The concept is straightforward: Citizens have a right to know who is trying to influence them in political ads and other media. That makes a great deal of sense.
But it doesn’t end there, because these responsible disclosure advocates aren’t the only voices asking for this information. For every one of them, there’s a zealot whose goal is to use disclosure as a cudgel to silence those with different views.
Disclosure opponents aver that, if identities were made known, donors would suffer reprisals. We are told by disclosure advocates that the fear-of-reprisal argument is a red herring. They tell us – with the measured patience of an adult talking to a small child or a yellow lab – that when you advocate for something publicly, you sacrifice any right to anonymity. If you speak in the public square, you must run the risk of reprisal and be comfortable with the consequences. That’s all there is to it.
Consider Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO who was forced to resign because he made a $1,000 contribution to an anti-same sex marriage campaign in California. He was hounded out of his job for having the identical belief as Obama at the time, along with 48 percent of his state. Eich never made public comments about the subject, and he made the contribution as a private citizen, not as CEO or on Mozilla’s behalf. But he lost his job in 2014 because he wrote a check in 2008. The message to Mr. Eich: You may only write checks as a private citizen to support “correct” opinions.
Another example is Georgia’s Dan Cathy, who made a public statement against same-sex marriage based on his religious beliefs. In this case, it’s government that’s punishing him for having the temerity to talk about his faith-based views. Because of this, the City of Chicago, along with Boston, said that Chick-fil-A was not welcome and prohibited the company from expanding there. Here’s what journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is in a same-sex relationship, said about the subject in a Salon.com article:
“Obviously, it’s perfectly legitimate for private citizens to decide not to patronize a business with executives who have such views. Beyond that, if a business is engaging in discriminatory hiring or service practices in violation of the law — refusing to hire gay employees or serve gay patrons in cities which have made sexual orientation discrimination illegal — then it is perfectly legitimate to take action against them. But that is not the case here; the actions are purely in retribution against the views of the business’ top executive on the desirability of same-sex marriage.
“Having mayors and other officials punish businesses for the political and social views of their executives — regardless of what those views are — is as pure a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as it gets, and beyond that, is genuinely dangerous.
“If you support what (Mayor Rahm) Emanuel is doing here, then you should be equally supportive of a mayor in Texas or a governor in Idaho who blocks businesses from opening if they are run by those who support same-sex marriage — or who oppose American wars, or who support reproductive rights, or who favor single-payer health care, or which donates to LGBT groups and Planned Parenthood, on the ground that such views are offensive to Christian or conservative residents. You can’t cheer when political officials punish the expression of views you dislike and then expect to be taken seriously when you wrap yourself in the banner of free speech in order to protest state punishment of views you like and share.”
The belief that, if you speak in the public square you must run the risk of reprisal and accept the consequences, is central to the 501(c)(4) disclosure argument. I’d agree that if a company takes a public stand on an issue, customers are free to make their own decisions and patronize the company or not. But if the political statements or donations are made by an employee as a private citizen, is it appropriate to attack the company? Or to force the company to fire the employee? Is it the government’s role to sanction a company because of a CEO’s faith and beliefs? If they were being honest, many ideologues would say yes, because the real goal is to silence the speech.
These examples were not 501(c)(4) donor issues. But we can expect a lot more of this type of free-speech mugging with 501(c)(4) donor disclosure. This is a cost we’ll pay, and I’m not sure how high it will be.
I agree with my friend Jon Sinton who said in another blog post that money is smart and will find a way to make its influence felt. The same can be said for political organizations on the right and left. SEIU’s so-called worker centers – composed not of laborers but professional demonstrators — can be mobilized at a moment’s notice to create large demonstrations that pretend to be spontaneous worker uprisings. The Tea Party is active for its causes, and electronic media has the potential to destroy people and organizations with great ease and speed. They are learning just as quickly as money is about how best to wield the weapons at their disposal.
I believe in disclosure and transparency, but I admit to having mixed feelings about a full-throated call for 501(c)(4) donor disclosure. I believe there are many who seek this information for the sole purpose of limiting the speech of others, and it’s naïve to think otherwise. And as Greenwald said, we can’t complain when someone of our ideology suffers unfairly when we have cheerfully embraced the punishment of opponents for the same thing. Because it’s bad enough to be naïve without being hypocritical too.