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Some in the Senate seem to think that there’s too much free speech in our politics and want to silence their opponents. For the third time in four years, Senate Democrats have trotted out a version of their Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act. The bill may be couched in soothing, good government terms, but it would be a hard punch to free speech.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has relentlessly opposed efforts to limit political speech and in the Washington Examiner defends the First Amendment from this latest assault [emphasis mine]:
As a longtime First Amendment hawk, I have sought to raise the alarm in real time on these multiplying assaults on the First Amendment, from a proposed executive order that would have required applicants for government contracts to disclose their political leanings before they could get a contract, to the significant, targeted harassment of conservative groups that we now know to have taken place at the IRS.
In my view, it is absolutely essential for the integrity of our politics and the health of our democracy that we not grow complacent in the face of these increasingly brazen attacks on free speech -- that we recognize them when we see them and call them out for what they are in plain English.
That was my goal this week in publicly testifying against the Democrats’ latest effort to stifle speech. Despite the many other urgent crises we face at the moment, I thought it important to make my way to a hearing of the Senate Rules Committee and speak out against Washington Democrats’ latest iteration of the so-called Disclose Act, because silence on this issue is not an option.
The Disclose Act has become something of a preoccupation for Washington Democrats. Its stated purpose is the forced disclosure of donors to political causes, but the truth is, it’s little more than a crude intimidation tactic masquerading as good government.
Attempts at forced disclosure were used in the past to squelch free speech, as McConnell explains:
Back in the 1950s, the state of Alabama tried to get its hands on the donor list of the NAACP. The Supreme Court correctly ruled against forced disclosure then because it knew that if people had reason to fear that their names and reputations would be attacked because of the causes they support, then they would be far less likely to support them. They knew disclosure would have a chilling effect on free association and free speech.
Bruce Josten, U.S. Chamber Executive Vice President for Government Affairs made similar points in a letter to Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) on the Senate Rules Committee. The clear purpose of the bill, Josten wrote, “is to upend irretrievably core First Amendment political speech protections” by “chilling the political speech of the business community and others engaged in the political process.” At the same time it is “blatantly political and ultimately unconstitutional legislation that detracts from much more significant efforts to solve challenges confronting America.”
U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue put it succinctly last year, “If you don't like what someone is saying, argue with them (but do it politely). Don’t try to silence them.” First Amendment defenders like Senator McConnell understand how important that principle is for our country.