Tag: free speech

Clean Elections Act Dirties the First Amendment

In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial in a lawsuit challenging the law showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections Act diminishes the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC struck down a similar provision in the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents. Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato has thus filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s decision upholding Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  We highlight Davis (in which Cato also filed a brief) and numerous other cases that point to a clear conclusion: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money (Arizona’s act automatically disburses matching funds) is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of our political debate, but it ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to review this case, McComish v. Bennett.

What If Cuccinelli Had Sent that Letter to Planned Parenthood?

The following analogy may help to explain why everyone should be troubled by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ efforts to intimidate insurance companies who say unflattering things about ObamaCare.

Last month, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), issued an opinion that state regulatory boards already have the authority to impose additional regulations on abortion clinics.  Critics pounced, claiming that the measure could shut down 17 of the state’s 21 clinics. What if Cuccinelli responded with a letter threatening to investigate clinics that “misinform” the public about the costs of such regulation?

Secretary Sebelius Slips on the Brass Knuckles

This week saw more bad news for ObamaCare.  So the Obama administration slipped on the brass knuckles.

Last week brought news that health insurance premiums grew by a smaller increment in 2010 than in any of the past 10 years.  On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that ObamaCare appears to be turning that around:

Health insurers say they plan to raise premiums for some Americans as a direct result of the health overhaul in coming weeks, complicating Democrats’ efforts to trumpet their signature achievement before the midterm elections. Aetna Inc., some BlueCross BlueShield plans and other smaller carriers have asked for premium increases of between 1% and 9% to pay for extra benefits required under the law, according to filings with state regulators.

The Journal even included this handy chart, where the blue bars show how much ObamaCare will add to the cost of certain health plans in 2011.

Source: Wall Street Journal

In addition, a Mercer survey of employers found that 79 percent expect they will lose their “grandfathered” status by 2014, and therefore will become subject to many more of ObamaCare’s new mandates—a much higher figure than the administration had estimated.  Employers expect those additional mandates will increase premiums by 2.3 percent, on average, and boost the overall growth of premiums from 3.6 percent to 5.9 percent in 2011.

In response to the health insurers’ claims, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius fired off a letter to the head of the health insurance lobby.  The news release on the HHS website makes her purpose plain:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the national association of health insurers, calling on their members to stop using scare tactics and misinformation to falsely blame premium increases for 2011 on the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act.  Sebelius noted that the consumer protections and out-of-pocket savings provided for in the Affordable Care Act should result in a minimal impact on premiums for most Americans.  Further, she reminded health plans that states have new resources under the Affordable Care Act to crack down on unjustified premium increases.

In the letter, Sebelius cites HHS’s internal analyses and those of Mercer and other groups to support her claim that ObamaCare’s impact on premiums “will be minimal” — somewhere in the range of 1 percent to 2.3 percent, on average.  Sebelius tells insurers that she will show “zero tolerance” for insurers who “falsely” blame premium increases on ObamaCare, and promises aggressive action against those who do:


[We] will require state or federal review of all potentially unreasonable rate increases filed by health insurers… We will also keep track of insurers with a record of unjustified rate increases: those plans may be excluded from health insurance Exchanges in 2014.  Simply stated, we will not stand idly by as insurers blame their premium hikes and increased profits on the requirement that they provide consumers with basic protections.

First of all, how does Sebelius know these claims are false?  The analyses she cites project a 1-2 percent average increase in premiums. As I blogged back in June, her own agency estimated that just a couple of ObamaCare’s mandates will increase premiums for some health plans by 7 percent or more.  Is 9 percent really that far off?  Didn’t her own agency write that a “paucity of data” means there is “tremendous,” “substantial,” and “considerable” uncertainty about the reliability of their own estimates?

More important: so what if insurers believe that ObamaCare is increasing premiums by 9 percent, while Sebelius believes it only increased premiums 7 percent?  What business does she have threatening insurers because they disagree with her in public?  ObamaCare gave the HHS secretary considerable new powers.  Is one of those the power to regulate what insurers say about ObamaCare?  Excluding insurers from ObamaCare’s exchanges is not a minor threat.  Medicare’s chief actuary predicts that in the future, “essentially all” Americans will get their health insurance through those exchanges.  Does anyone seriously doubt that Sebelius’ threat is about protecting politicians rather than consumers?

When President Obama promised that he would sell ObamaCare to the American people, most people probably assumed he meant with his rhetorical skills.  But National Journal reports, “Remember how the administration was going ‘to sell’ the controversial legislation once it passed? Obama is not doing much pitching.”  He can’t even sell Jon Stewart on ObamaCare.  The administration seems to have settled on a different sales strategy: intimidate those who say unflattering things about ObamaCare.

Earlier this year, I predicted that ObamaCare would get uglier and more corrupt over time.  I didn’t know I’d be proven right so quickly.

Internet Censorship

On August 24th, the Attorneys General of 17 states sent a letter [PDF] to the founder and CEO of the Craigslist online platform, to “request” that they take down the “Adult Services” section of the site. The link to that section of the site now stands with a “CENSORED” label over the place where the link stood.

On the TechLiberationFront blog, Ryan Radia has a good write-up, including the legal protections Craigslist enjoys under federal law as a provider of an “interactive computer service.” The AGs undoubtedly know that could not directly shut down Craigslist. They wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they attacked the site for the behavior of its users. But they also know that publically badgering Craigslist can win them political points and cut into the site’s image, profits, and ultimately, perhaps, viability. Several Attorneys General have doggedly asked Craigslist to patrol the behavior of its millions of users, never satisfied with the company’s efforts.

The turning point seems to have been a CNN “ambush” interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in which reporter Amber Lyon sprung a terrific gotcha line, calling Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” It’s a sound-bite with just enough truth: In a community of millions of people, there may be some such trafficking.

Newmark is an unusual character in any world, but especially in media and politics. He is meek, soft-spoken, and utterly guileless. A part of West-Coast tech’s recent interest in East-Coast government and politics, Newmark sought me ought a few months ago for a wide-ranging, ambling, and—for those reasons—charming chat.

Newmark was utterly caught off guard by the interview with the CNN reporter. The tape rolls through painfully awkward moments when Newmark remains simply silent or paces around, making him look stupid, mendacious, or both. (His comment on the interview is here, to which Lyon responds in the video linked above at “ambush.”)

The AGs smelled blood in the water. Their letter pounces on Craigslist and Craig Newmark’s inartful performance.

So the next step is the “CENSORED” block on Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section. Perhaps it’s meant to engender support for First Amendment rights, and to an extent it has. Early returns show support for Craigslist. But it may also create an expectation that large Web sites on which a tiny minority of people abuse speech rights to plan and execute crime may lose their speech protections themselves.

In case it needs pointing out, shutting down a Web site, or the portion of a Web site, on which people plan crime will only move crime to other places on the Internet. The cost to free speech in the AGs’ badgering of Craigslist vastly outweighs the infinitesimal crime-prevention benefit.

The Attorneys General sacrificing speech this way are: Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (a candidate for U.S. Senate), Dustin McDaniel (D) of Arkansas, Lawrence G. Wasden (R) of Idaho, Lisa Madigan (D) of Illinois, Tom Miller (D) of Iowa, Steve Six (D) of Kansas, Douglas F. Gansler (D) of Maryland, Mike Cox (R) of Michigan, Jim Hood (D) of Mississippi, Chris Koster (D) of Missouri, Michael A. Delaney (D) of New Hampshire, Richard Cordray (D) of Ohio, Patrick C. Lynch (D) of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, Robert E. Cooper, Jr. (D) of Tennessee, Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II (R) of Virginia.

Kagan Contra Kagan?

The Center for Competitive Politics has sponsored an analysis by Allison Hayward of Elena Kagan’s writings on campaign finance regulation. It should be read widely, not least by the Senators trying to discern her fitness for the Court. Here’s a taste of Allison’s analysis:

In Kagan’s 1996 article, Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine, she “explicitly recognized that ‘campaign finance laws… easily can serve as incumbent-protection devices’ and when applied to certain speakers ‘the danger of illicit motive becomes even greater.’ It is impossible to square Kagan’s analysis in this article with her recent comments that the Supreme Court should have deferred to Congress in Citizens United.  Americans deserve to know which version of Kagan’s views will receive a lifetime platform on the bench of the Supreme Court.”

Having Public Colleges Means Limiting Freedom

While we’re all shooting off our guns in celebration of good Supreme Court news, Roger has reported the blow to liberty dealt by the Court’s lower-profile CLS v. Martinez decision. I won’t elaborate on whether the Court made the right decision – on that I stand with Roger (and Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas). I just want to add one thing about the root problem in the CLS case: You can’t have both taxpayer funding of higher education and full freedom. As Ilya Shapiro and I wrote in an April op-ed about the case:

It is impossible to reconcile free speech with governmentally compelled support of speech. Just as public colleges cannot choose both which student groups to fund and avoid discrimination, they cannot pay a professor without privileging his speech over that of the taxpayers who pay his bills.

Quite simply, when public universities decide which groups do or do not get taxpayer funds, and which professors are or are not hired, government is deciding those things, and that is ultimately incompatible with both free inquiry and, more importantly, a free society.

Our Fellows in the News

Cato fellows Nat Hentoff and Penn Jillette have just been profiled in major publications – Hentoff in the New York Times and Penn in Vanity Fair. Warning: the Hentoff profile is mostly about jazz, and the Penn interview contains lots of four-letter words, obscene imagery, and harsh language about religion. So if you have a low tolerance for jazz or for obscenity and blasphemy, be forewarned. But it’s no surprise that both of them talk a lot about the importance of free speech.