In Montana, an Election Law Chills Free Speech and Privacy Rights

National Review - Writing in the New York Times recently, Montana governor Steve Bullock sounded awfully proud of his legacy of shutting down privacy rights and chilling free speech. Now that the special election for the U.S. House seat is over and the eyes of the world might linger on Montana for a moment, I thought now would be a good time to discuss one particularly insidious product of the governor’s legacy: the DISCLOSE Act.
The law, which the governor cites warmly as a tool for fighting “the corrupting influence of money in politics,” is in practice little more than a way to guarantee that politicians, who already have the loudest microphone, can shut down opposing viewpoints and make it harder for citizens to hold lawmakers accountable. The truth is no easier to find when the powerful have the only microphone.
Signed into law by Bullock in 2015, the DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) Act limits “electioneering communications” within two months of the start of voting and requires non-profits to register their donors’ personal information with the government if the organization has the audacity to engage in issue advocacy too close to an election, specifically if that advocacy mentions a politician. That’s right, politicians don’t want criticism, and they are trying to stop independent criticism using this law.
Donors to Montana’s rich and diverse collection of non-profit civic organizations should have a reasonable expectation of privacy — and should be able to voice their opinions on issues important to the state, free of intimidation, harassment, or fear of retribution from politicians or their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, many potential donors see the threat to their livelihoods posed by criticizing the politically powerful and decide that participating in the political process is not worth the risk. That kind of suppression of speech stifles the debate and makes us all worse off. Many potential donors see the threat to their livelihoods posed by criticizing the politically powerful and decide that participating in the political process is not worth the risk.
Governor Bullock paints a picture of his campaign to end “dark money” as a holy crusade to reverse the effects of the much-maligned (and widely misrepresented) Citizens United case. In reality, the push to force the release of private information was nothing more than a personal crusade to sidestep election-year criticism from Montanans who differ from the governor on the issues.
It’s like Hollywood stars deciding who can review their movies, or pro athletes deciding who can write about them on the sports pages.
The governor, of course, did not impose this draconian restriction of liberty on his own. He had help. Montana and other states considering similar measures must come to terms with a harsh reality: In politics, it is often the politicians vs. the rest of us, and the DISCLOSE Act puts a thumb on the scales of power, as the well-connected cheer.
Why does this matter? Because laws that require the public disclosure of donors’ private information chill free speech, as those who wish to support organizations that hold government accountable are exposed to threats of violence. The New York Civil Liberties Union is fighting a similar disclosure law in that state, where its members have been subjected to vandalism and death threats.
And these laws don’t work anyway. Study after study has shown that such restrictions do not result in less corruption or a more satisfied electorate. So, we’re losing freedom and gaining nothing.
Ever since the landmark Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama (1958), non-profits have had the right to protect their donors’ privacy, and with good reason. The racist politicians challenging the NAACP’s heroic work were not interested in canvassing the neighborhood. They wanted to put the organization out of business. They wanted names and addresses for nefarious reasons. The Supreme Court stood fast against such intimidation.
Individuals should not have to fear violent reprisals for exercising their First Amendment rights, in segregation-era Alabama or in the Montana of today. That Governor Bullock takes pride in his crusade against free speech should be unnerving for all Americans who value free speech and freedom of association. — David Herbst is state director of the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Share article on Facebook Tweet article Plus one article on Google Plus

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