campaign finance

New York Attorney General Schneiderman Goes After Citizens United’s Donors

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demands out-of-state charities disclose all donors for his inspection. He does not demand this of all charities, only those he decides warrant his special scrutiny. Schneiderman garnered national attention for his campaign to use the powers of his office to harass companies and organizations who do not endorse his preferred policies regarding climate change. Now, it seems he seeks to do the same to right-of-center organizations that might displease him. Our colleague Walter Olson has cataloged Schneiderman’s many misbehaviors.

He’s currently set his sights on Citizens United, a Virginia non-profit that produces conservative documentaries. While Citizens United has solicited donations in New York for decades without any problem, Schneiderman now demands that they name names, telling him who has chosen to support the group. Citizens United challenged this demand in court, arguing that to disclose this information would risk subjecting their supporters to harassment and intimidation.

These fears are not mere hyperbole. If the name Citizens United rings a bell, it’s because the organization, and the Supreme Court case of the same name, has become the Emmanuel Goldstein of the American left, complete with Democratic senators leading a ritualistic two minutes hate on the Senate floor. In 2010, the Supreme Court upheld its right to distribute Hillary: The Movie, and ever since “Citizens United” has been a synecdoche for what Democrats consider to be the corporate control of America. Is it unwarranted to think that their donors might be subjected to the sort of targeted harassment suffered by lawful gun owners, or that Schneiderman might “accidentally” release the full donor list to the public, as Obama’s IRS did with the confidential filings of gay marriage opponents?

The Supreme Court has long recognized the dangers inherent in applying the power of the state against the right of private association. The cornerstone here is 1958’s NAACP v Alabama. For reasons that hardly need be pointed out, the NAACP did not trust the state of Alabama, in the 1950s, to be good stewards of its membership lists. “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who went as far as to compare such demands to a “requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands.” More recently, Justice Alito pointed out in a similar context that while there are undoubted purposes served by reasonable, limited disclosure requirements, the First Amendment requires that “speakers must be able to obtain an as-applied exemption without clearing a high evidentiary hurdle” regarding the potential harms of disclosure.

But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has decided it knows better than the Supremes. On Thursday, it ruled that Citizen United’s challenge should be thrown out without even an opportunity to prove their case. In the process, it effectively turned NAACP into a “Jim Crow” exception to a general rule of unlimited government prerogative to panoptic intrusion into citizen’s political associations. While there can be no doubt that the struggle for civil rights presented a unique danger for its supporters, this should not mean that only such perils warrant First Amendment protection.

The Foot in the Door on Internet Speech Regulation

Campaign finance has captured Congress’s attention once again, which rarely bodes well for democracy. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and (of course) John McCain have introduced the Honest Ads Act. The bill requires “those who purchase and publish [online political advertisements]to disclose information about the advertisements to the public…”

Specifically, the bill requires those who paid for an online ad to disclose their name and additional information in the ad itself or in another fashion that can be easily accessed. The bill takes several pages to specify exactly how these disclosures should look or sound. The bill also requires those who purchase $500 or more of ads to disclose substantial information about themselves; what must be disclosed takes up a page and a half of the bill.

The Federal Election Commission makes disclosed campaign contributions public. With this bill, large Internet companies (that is, platforms with 50 million unique visitors from the United States monthly) are given that task. They are supposed to maintain records about ads that concern “any political matter of national importance.” This category goes well beyond speech seeking to elect or defeat a candidate for office.

Why does the nation need this new law? The bill discusses Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election. It mentions the $100,000 spent by “Russian entities” to purchase 3,000 ads. The bill does not mention that Mark Penn, a former campaign advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, has estimated that only $6,500 of the $100,000 actually sought to elect or defeat a candidate for office. It also omits Penn’s sense of perspective:

Hillary Clinton’s total campaign budget, including associated committees, was $1.4 billion. Mr. Trump and his allies had about $1 billion. Even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary’s financial advantage. In the last week of the campaign alone, Mrs. Clinton’s super PAC dumped $6 million in ads into Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Hillary: The Candidate on Hillary: The Movie

This week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposals to reform campaign finance laws. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s proposals would make it much more difficult to criticize, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton.

Accompanying the announcement is her new campaign video, which acknowledges the elephant in the room: Citizens United was a case about censoring a movie that criticized Hillary Clinton. But rather than this biasing her opinion on the case, the video argues that her connection to the case gives her insight because “she knows firsthand what it’s done to our democracy.”

Clinton has pledged to use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and she also supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

This wouldn’t be the first time a politician pushed to censor criticism as a public service. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything that might bring “the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States into disrepute or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.” Maybe we should just resuscitate that law and add the name “Hillary Clinton.”

According to her video, Citizens United was “a conservative organization that wanted to bring down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy because they didn’t like who she is, they don’t like what she stands for”–in other words, the quintessence of political speech protected by the First Amendment. Yet, because Hillary: The Movie was funded by a corporation–a nonprofit corporation founded to forward conservative causes–the movie and its accompanying advertisements ran afoul of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In short, the government was explicitly censoring political speech.    

In Clinton’s words, according to the Associated Press: “I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me. Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don’t know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.”

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.

Raising Big Money to Fight Big Money?

In the latest of many enthusiastic National Public Radio reports on Professor Lawrence Lessig and his efforts to remove money from politics, Lessig outlines big plans:

In 2016, we want to raise a substantially larger amount of money - could be 200 million, could be 800 million - so that we can win a Congress committed to fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Twitter fight!

Yesterday morning, a line in a New York Times article by Nick Confessore offered me the opportunity for mirthful needling that turned into a full-blown, impossibly brief exchange of views on Twitter.

The article was on Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig’s plan to elect candidates who are committed to his version of campaign finance reform. It quoted Lessig saying, “Inside-the-Beltway people don’t think this issue matters, they don’t think voters vote on the basis of this issue, and they advise their politicians not to talk about it.”

So I tweeted: “I don’t think this issue matters.” Then I tweeted: “Voters don’t vote on the basis of this issue.” (I didn’t bother with the rest because I don’t advise politicians.)

I’m inside the beltway! I’m a people! How could I not?!

Responding to another NYT reporter’s question, I touted my own work as “speech-friendly reform,” linking to our upcoming event on congressional Wikipedia editing. Just think of the prospects if legislative staff—some of the foremost experts about the bills in Congress—contributed information about notable bills to Wikipedia for the public to peruse ahead of congressional debates.

Professor Lessig took the crumb of bait, asking me “how is more speech not speech friendly #Escapethe1990s.” (I still don’t know what the hashtag means.) Assuming he was still working on public/taxpayer funded campaigns—I’m not a follower of Lessig’s in the Twitter sense or any other—I tweeted about the wrong of forcing people to pay to money to support speech with which they disagree.

Lessig’s plan is not detailed on the website of his “Mayday PAC,” which only offers gauzy promises of “fundamental reform.” After some back and forth, I learned that Lessig’s reform plan is not direct public funding, in which taxpayer money goes from the Treasury to campaigns, but indirect. He would rebate $50 in taxes in the form of a “democracy voucher.” The taxpayer could give the voucher to any candidate who pledges only to take such vouchers, it could go to the political party of the taxpayer, or “if an independent, back to this public funding system.”

Democrats and Mansions

Washington Post reporter Bill Turque swallowed the Democrats’ spin hook, line, and sinker. He reports in Friday’s paper:

The Potomac estate of IT entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Islam seemed more fitting for a Republican soiree than a Democratic fundraiser, some of Maryland’s top elected officials said Wednesday.

But big-time donors, including developers Aris Mardirossian and Fred Ezra, hotel and nursing home magnate Stewart Bainum and auto executive Tammy Darvish, gathered there to raise big bucks for the re-election campaign of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

“There are not too many people who own homes like this who are great Democrats,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) told the audience of about 400.

I’m not surprised that Senator Cardin would press the line that Republicans are the rich guys with mansions. But why would the Post report it as fact? Consider a few other news articles from the past few days. Here’s the Post’s Zachary Goldfarb reporting from California:

As he toured a series of mansions,…at the home of Walt Disney Studios chief executive Alan Horn… at an event hosted by Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, and Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator…At the home of Irwin Jacobs, founder of the telecom giant Qualcomm,…Obama put the blame for failing to make progress squarely on the Republicans — “a party that has been captive to an ideology, to a theory of economics, that says those folks, they’re on their own and government doesn’t have an appropriate role to play.”

Later that day, the Associated Press reported,

Obama was to attend a fundraiser hosted by Anne Wojcicki, a biotech entrepreneur who founded the personal-genomics startup 23andMe. The event is advertised as a Tech Roundtable, with 30 guests and tickets set at $32,400 — a nearly $1 million potential haul for the Democratic National Committee.

Even Little Platoons Have First Amendment Rights

Nathan Worley and three friends hold a weekly political discussion group in their hometown of Sarasota, Florida. In 2010, a ballot initiative for a proposed amendment to the Florida constitution prompted the group to pull together $600 and exercise their First Amendment rights. They soon found, however, that doing so wasn’t going to be quite so easy.

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