Tag: First Amendment

Federal Contractors Shouldn’t Lose First Amendment Rights

From the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to today’s Tea Party movement, from suffragettes to Occupiers, freedom of political association has always been this country’s hallmark. Importantly, this First Amendment freedom extends to campaign contributions. As the Supreme Court affirmed in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo,“the right of association is a basic constitutional freedom that is closely allied to freedom of speech and a right which, like free speech, lies at the foundation of a free society.”

The Buckley ruling has since survived many assaults—including, most notably, Citizens United v. FEC—though Citizens United exposed certain instabilities in Buckley’s frameworkIn any event, challenges continue to arise at the intersection of campaign finance law, political association rights, and the freedom of speech.

An important one comes from three individuals who have business contracts with the federal government. Under the Federal Election Campaign Act’s section 441c(a), “any person who is negotiating for, or performing under, a contract with the federal government is banned from making a contribution to a political party, committee, or candidate for federal officer.” Accordingly, the three plaintiffs are prohibited from making their intended campaign contributions and thus from an important form of political participation. This rule applies even to someone like name plaintiff Professor Wendy E. Wagner, who derives only a fraction of her income from the federal contract.

Together with the Center for Competitive Politics, Cato last week filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, arguing that the plaintiffs should be able to exercise their right to political association and speech by contributing to political campaigns. Specifically, we argue that section 441(c) is unique in that it entirely bans contributions by a class of individual citizens. 

In McConnell v. FEC,the only case where the Supreme Court addressed an outright ban on contributions by a class of individuals—the ban on campaign contributions by minors originally in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform,” which McConnell otherwise substantially upheld—the Court struck it down as overly broad and because the government didn’t give sufficient justification. What’s clear from that ruling is that for a ban on political speech and association to be constitutional, the government must show that its targeted class of people is somehow too dangerous to be allowed to participate in the political process, and also that the ban applies only to that set of uniquely dangerous people. Section 441(c) doesn’t meet this test.

If the government wants to ban her from this important form of political participation, then it must give more than bare assertions of the specter of potential corruption.

The D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Wagner v. FEC on September 30.

How Would I Amend the Constitution? End All Extra-Legal Amendments Thereto

The Fiscal Times recently asked me and a number of others, “How would you amend the Constitution?“ Here’s how the Times categorized my response:

DON’T CHANGE A THING

Several major conservative thinkers suggested that the Constitution does not need to be changed, but rather to have its principle of limited government guide both Congress and the president.

Michael Cannon at the Cato Institute noted that the Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless searches, “yet the National Security Agency tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent.”

First of all, and I fear I will be explaining this to reporters for the rest of my life, I am not a conservative. I support gay marriage, cutting military spending, closing all U.S. bases in foreign nations, and ending the prohibitions on drugs, gambling, and prostitution. Of such stuff conservatives are not made.

Second, the above excerpt scarcely captures my response to the Times’ inquiry. Don’t change a thing?? Here is my response in full:

There are constitutional amendments I want to see. And yet.

Americans don’t need to amend the Constitution so much as they need politicians to honor what the Constitution already says. The Constitution creates a government of enumerated and therefore limited powers; Congress and the president routinely exceed those powers. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, particularly political speech; Congress heavily regulates and rations political speech. The Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches” and requires “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause”; yet the NSA tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent. The states could ratify an amendment that says, “Hey, we mean it!”; but the Constitution already contains two amendments saying that (the Ninth and Tenth). What is the point of amending the Constitution if Congress will just ignore that amendment too?

This could soon become a Very Big Problem. If Congress keeps acting like it is not bound by the Constitution, then eventually the people will conclude that they aren’t either.

That is, I don’t want to amend the Constitution so much as I want to stop politicians and bureaucrats from amending it unlawfully – i.e., without going through the Article V amendment process  – and stop the courts from rubber-stamping those extra-legal amendments. 

It would be great if, as the Times writes, the Constitution’s principle of limited government were to guide both Congress and the president. I would settle for having the plain words of the Constitution constrain Congress and the president. That constraint will have to come from the people, and federal judges.

Supreme Court: Government Can’t Force Federal Contractors to Waive Their Rights

Despite its awkward name and somewhat technical details, AID v. AOSI provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to make a very simple point: The federal government can’t force its contractors – whether they’re corporations (as in this case) or individuals – to promote policies that are unrelated to the program for which they receive federal funds. The Court correctly ruled that executing a program to combat HIV/AIDS is unrelated to advocating for or against the legalization of prostitution. One can imagine other instances: Treating drug abuse has little to do with one’s views on drug legalization. Running an adoption agency can be done whether one is pro-choice or pro-life. Missiles can be built regardless of whether the contractor favors a particular foreign policy stance.

As Cato argued in its amicus brief, such “policy requirements” significantly burden political speech, the constitutional protection of which lies at the very heart of the First Amendment. Had the government’s position been accepted, it would eviscerate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which the Supreme Court has long recognized to prevent the conditioning of generally available federal benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights. The Court has never given Congress carte blanche to give contractors Hobson’s Choices, whether relating to the freedom of speech or other constitutional rights. Today it thus strengthened the principle that Congress’s power to condition funding is limited to ensuring that its funds are used to properly implement the program that Congress wishes to fund, not to compel private organizations to adopt express “policies” that don’t relate to the use of those federal funds.

For more on AID v. AOSI, see my recent op-ed.

There’s No Such Thing as ‘Good Government’

National Journal’s Ron Fournier:

I like government. I don’t like what the fallout from these past few weeks might do to the public’s faith in it…

The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition of young, minority and well-educated voters, is that government can do good things–and do them well.

Damn. Look at what cliches the past few weeks wrought.

Fournier then runs through how the various Obama scandals show:

Government is intrusive … Orwellian … incompetent … corrupt … complicated … heartless … secretive … [and] can’t be trusted.

And that’s when the good guys are running the show!

Maybe Fournier needs to brush up on his Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence… For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least.

Translation: there’s no such thing as “good government.”

A Brief Civil Liberties Quiz

See if you can spot the civil-liberties victory:

  1. The Supreme Court says the government can put your DNA in a national database, even if you were wrongly arrested.
  2. The State of Mississippi imposes mandatory collection of the DNA of babies born to teenage moms, neither of which is suspected of a crime.
  3. The Department of Justice is tracking and threatening to prosecute reporters, for the crime of reporting.
  4. The National Security Agency is collecting everyone’s phone records, even if they suspect you of nothing.
  5. The U.S. Senate kills a bill that could lead to a registry of law-abiding gun owners.

Answer: #5. 

Those crazy senators are looking less crazy all the time. 

First They Came for My Coke, Then They Came for My Jack

Not satisfied with hounding smokers and purveyors of Big Gulp sodas – or even gun manufacturers – nanny-staters have reached way back into their historical toolkits to go after alcohol. That’s right, in this the 80th year since the repeal of Prohibition, a new coalition has arisen to take on the scourge of demon rum.

But these aren’t your great-granddaddy’s Baptists and bootleggers; instead we have a transnational alliance of “public health professionals” out to make the world a more sober place.  Not satisfied with the persuasiveness of their entreaties, however, they further want to muzzle alcohol producers and anyone else with a “stake” in the debate.  (Apparently limiting the freedom to drink isn’t enough for these people; the freedom of speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances are also suspect.)

Here’s Exhibit A, a “statement of concern” put out in February by a group of public health advocates calling themselves the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance.  In a nutshell, GAPA doesn’t like the fact that the beverage alcohol industry is involved in the debate on how to reduce alcohol abuse, not even the commitments that 13 of the largest alcohol producers made in support of the World Health Organization’s “Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol.  The most revealing “reservation” the GAPA-niks have is item 3 on page 3:

Prior initiatives advanced by the alcohol industry as contributions to the WHO Global Strategy have major limitations from a public health perspective …

That sounds rather innocuous – an academic disagreement about alcohol policy – but let me put this in context.  The public health community consistently advocates “population-based” controls that simply seek to reduce total alcohol consumption, regardless of whether alcohol abuse declines.  There could be cirrhotic ne’er-do-wells dying in the streets, but as long as yuppies buy less Jack Daniel’s, all is fine.  The alcohol industry, or anyone that cares about actually fixing social problems rather than taking steps that at best just make politicians feel good – call it the inverse Baptists/bootleggers – prefers a targeted approach: keep booze away from kids, get alcoholics treatment, don’t drink bad moonshine that’ll make you go blind, etc.

Campaign Restrictions Lead to Due Process Violations, Even in Local Politics

Most times when I write about campaign finance laws, the context is a presidential race or Supreme Court case.  But these restrictions on political speech – the protection of which is the main purpose of the First Amendment – abound in local politics and state courts even without FEC intervention or presidential finger-wagging.

Here’s a case from California that literally just came across my transom:

Last year, John Mlnarik ran for Santa Clara City Council.  Mlnarik is the sole shareholder of a small business, a law firm with seven employees – a fact revealed in several mandatory campaign disclosures.  Because his money is partly tied up in his business, along with two personal loans to his campaign he also made a third loan (for about $6000) via his business.  He fully disclosed the loan and its source.

More than three months later, after the election, the City of Santa Clara issued a citation against Mlnarik for receiving an excessive loan “from a third-party source.”  Yet the City Code also states:  “For purposes of the contribution limits … [a]n individual and any corporation in which the individual owns a controlling interest, shall be treated as one person … . Nothing … shall prohibit a candidate from making unlimited contributions to his/her own cam­paign.”  And under state law incorporated into the City Code, an individual’s income includes his business’s income; an individual’s real property includes his business’s real property; and an individual’s investments include his business’s investments.

Given this logical overlay, and the fact that his sole ownership and the loan’s source were both fully disclosed, Mlnarik thought he was following the law.  After all, as the Supreme Court reiterated in 2008, “the use of personal funds … reduces the candidate’s dependence on outside contributions and thereby counteracts the coercive pressures and attendant risks of abuse to which … contribution limitations are directed.”  (Davis v. FEC, quoting Buckley v. Valeo).

The City, however, cited the following from its Code:  “[U]nless a term is specifically defined in this chapter, or the contrary is stated (or clearly appears from the context), the definitions set forth in [a portion of the State Government Code] shall govern the interpretation of the provisions of this chapter.”   The State Code, in turn, includes a 192-word definition of “candidate,” which – along with many other possible definitions – states that “ ‘Candidate’ means an individual who is listed on the ballot.”  Thus, while Mlnarik was free to make unlimited loans to his campaign, he supposedly violated the law by making a campaign loan via his wholly owned business, which itself wasn’t a “candidate.”

Mlnarik argued that the City law was unconstitutionally vague – after all, how is one to know whether a term’s contrary meaning “clearly appears from the context”?  (If it does, then the State law’s definition of “candidate” must not be used – and there would be no case against Mlnarik.)  As noted above, the “context” was a law that repeatedly makes an equivalence between a person and his or her business; moreover, the law has eight statutory purposes, three of which (Mlnarik argued) were actually advanced by allowing sole business-owners to contribute to their own campaigns via their business, while none of the eight purposes was thwarted.  If that’s not the contrary “clearly appearing,” what is?

Nevertheless, the City refused to drop the case, and the trial judge denied that the phrase “the term[’s] … contrary … clearly appears from the context” was unconstitutionally vague (in a quasi-criminal case!).  Mlnarik is now attempting to appeal further, but he has been warned that state law may not permit an additional appeal – even though his constitutional argument couldn’t be heard by the administrative hearing officer, and thus has been heard only once, and then only by one judge.

So not only is there an underlying First Amendment violation, but there are due process infringements squared or cubed.  And all this because a candidate for office “loaned himself” $6,000 and fully disclosed all aspects of the transaction.

You can’t make this stuff up!