As reported on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and picked up by the Chicago Tribune among many others, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has been sending out letters to anyone he has determined to have funded the American Legislative Exchange Council since 2005. He wants to know these supporters’ position on “stand your ground” laws, which ALEC (a group of state legislators pushing center-right reform ideas) advocated around the country.
After Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida—which had passed a stand-your-ground law before ALEC started pitching its model legislation—liberal activists pressured ALEC’s corporate donors to cut their ties with the group (never mind that “stand your ground” didn’t play a role in George Zimmerman’s trial for Martin’s death), which is partly why ALEC closed its task forces on non-economic issues.
Durbin smelled blood in the water and, continuing his rampage against corporate political speech—pretty rich for someone who inserted a consumer-unfriendly provision into Dodd-Frank at the behest of Walgreens and other large retailers in his home state of Illinois—is now seeking to shame anyone ever associated with ALEC.
That includes Cato. Earlier this week, we received a letter from Durbin asking two questions (you’ll have to pardon the awkward grammar; this went out to hundreds of groups, so Durbin’s staff apparently had no time for proofing):
- Has Cato Institute served as a member of ALEC or provided any funding to ALEC in 2013?
- Does Cato Institute support the “stand your ground” legislation that was adopted as a national model and promoted by ALEC?
And, by the way, Durbin wants recipients of his polite inquiry to know, “I plan to convene a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to examine ‘stand your ground’ laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.”
Well, I’m proud to say that Cato isn’t going along with this charade. Our president John Allison has responded to Durbin with a letter that I’ll quote in its entirety:
Dear Senator Durbin:
Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
While Cato is not intimidated because we are a think tank—whose express mission is to speak publicly to influence the climate of ideas—from my experience as a private-sector CEO, I know that business leaders will now hesitate to exercise their constitutional rights for fear of regulatory retribution.
Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.
Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.
We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.
As John said, Cato is in the business of speaking truth to power—the more and better we do it, the more we advance liberty and the more our donors like us—so playing pen-pal with crusading senators is par for the course. But what about those who don’t have Cato’s mission or independence, whose livelihood depends on being in the good graces of a regulator who understands the way political winds blow? (Heck, we’re all beholden to the IRS; I apologize, honey, if we get audited next year.)
This is unacceptable. Senator Durbin, care to invite me to testify at your little hearing? I rather enjoyed discussing Citizens United at the kabuki theatre you ran last year—though you seemed more interested in accusing me of being a pawn of the Koch brothers (with whom I have no beef, but who were actually suing Cato at the time)—and would be happy to have another tete-a-tete with my fellow University of Chicago Law School alum.
In the meantime, Cato will certainly stand its ground.