Last week Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, indicted 13 Russians for intervening in the 2016 United States election. Two of the charges - buying political advertisements and mandatory disclosure - bear on free speech.
Much of the indictment documents activities during the election that would be both normal and protected by the Constitution if undertaken by American citizens. The defendants bought political advertisements, staged political rallies, and even “posted derogatory information about a number of candidates,” Hillary Clinton in particular. Lacking all scruples, they are said to have “solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates” which means paying an actress to impersonate Hillary Clinton in jail. The defendants tried to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.” Overall the Russians hoped “to sow discord in the U.S. political system.”
As it happens, all this activity may be illegal because the Russian government supported these activities. The Federal Election Commission concisely explains regulation 110.20: , “The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibits any foreign national from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly.” The Commission notes that this ban “was first enacted in 1966 as part of the amendments to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an "internal security" statute. The goal of the FARA was to minimize foreign intervention in U.S. elections by establishing a series of limitations on foreign nationals.” FARA also required agents of foreign principals to register with the federal government presumably, as the indictment says, so “the people of the United States are informed of the source of information and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and law.” (It should also be noted that the defendants are charged with several counts of fraud and identity theft).
These two parts of the law establish different rules for different audiences. Voters in an election are prohibited from hearing speech funded by a foreign power. Arguably, they are prevented from hearing any speech by an employee of a foreign government; such speech would involve indirect spending on an election. Other listeners, unnamed in the law, need not be prevented from hearing speech of foreigners “attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and law.” The public, apart from electoral appeals, and public officials, including above all members of Congress, may hear foreign speech assuming disclosure of its source. Voters, however, should be, and are protected from such speech.
The law seems informed by the following assumptions. Public officials need to hear foreign views, especially about international affairs. They have the ability to sort out the false from the true if they know who is behind the arguments. In contrast, voters might be moved by foreign speech to the detriment of the nation. Hence, voters must be prevented from hearing such speech even if its source is disclosed. To put it mildly, this distinction between officialdom and voters is contrary to the foundations of freedom of speech. If voters lack this basic capacity of citizenship, why protect speech through the First Amendment? The distinction seems paternalistic.
There’s little evidence that the Russian efforts had much effect on the voters in 2016. The New York Times indicates that the Russians may have persuaded a few people to show up at a small anti-Muslim rally in Texas. Speculation about others effects does abound, as the Times article shows. However, as Brendan Nyham indicates, political science research shows how hard it is to change votes even with significant spending. The Russian effort was a miniscule portion of overall spending in 2016.
The law is the law, and the indictment made a good enough case against the defendants that at least 12 grand jury members endorsed the charges. But the indictment comes at a difficult time for free speech. Facebook and other tech giants have been put on the defensive in DC. For some, only foreign malevolence could propel a man like Donald Trump to the White House. Fears about national security can foster public actions that otherwise would be rejected. This might be one of those moments when something must be done and the “something” that is selected does real harm to freedom of speech. That outcome could easily be worse than whatever threat the Russians pose to American democracy.