Archive for the 'Issues Speech' Category

The New Free Speech Anxieties

January 18, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Independence Institute case, a challenge to the regulation of issues speech, has attracted a sizeable roster of amici in support of Supreme Court review. So far the line-up is largely conservative and libertarian, and yet, notably, the arguments are ones that in the Age of Polarization might also ---and should-- find an audience among progressives. The issue is the constitutional protection available for anonymous issues speech that a speaker, or an association of speakers, may engage in to limit the risk of reprisal or harassment.

For progressives as well as others, there are reasons to take this issue seriously: and some, pointing to Donald Trump, say he is the reason. Jim Rutenberg, reporting on Bill Maher’s belief that free speech may be under siege, writes this:

 It’s amazing how much anxiety Mr. Trump’s imminent inauguration is stirring in the free-speech business — but perhaps not surprising given his open hostility toward the press, his willingness to use his platform against any who cross him and his seemingly proud dismissal of the government and political norms that precede him. No one knows whether a year from now, we’ll see today’s fears as overblown, underblown, or on point.
These observations explain in part the general reluctance of progressives to take up the cause more formally. For them, the “anxiety…in the free speech business” has been triggered by the rise of Trump. But they cannot know what the future holds: maybe they will find their fears to be “overblown.” The problem may appear to them to be highly localized, to last only as long as the new president’s term in office. The New Normal could prove to be ephemeral.

If the world is returned to the Old Normal, progressives may then resume their standard advocacy of expansive disclosure of those funding, out of their own pocket or that of others, issue advocacy. They are motivated, properly, by the belief that political inequality should not be exacerbated by income inequality. They come to the issue from a long history of concern with issue speech being “sham,” much of it electoral speech in disguise.

But these commitments need not mean that progressives must surrender all support for anonymous issues speech, or make an exception only to address the challenge from a particular adversary. As the political scientist Bruce Cain wrote well before the 2016 election: “The argument for preserving the privacy of individual citizen identity for those who participate in constitutionally approved ways is strong if the goal is full participation and citizen autonomy.” Democracy, More or Less 54 (2015). Cain has suggested “semi-disclosure” to protect against the identification of individual contributors while making public other information in “census-like categories” about the sources of a candidate or political committee’s support. There has also been openness in some progressive circles to protecting the “small donor” by raising the threshold for the public disclosure of personal identifying information.

The Quandaries of Ethics Reform in the Trump Era

December 19, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

There is now bipartisan interest in a change in the lobbying rules to reach the “back room” or “shadow” lobbyist. Most immediately, the proposal has been to have the new Administration expand the ban by Executive Order on federal government employment of lobbyists to include these individuals believed to be lobbyists in all but the name. This would close a much-derided “loophole,” one that has been especially infuriating to those who do register under the lobbying disclosure law while watching others, who seem to do pretty much what they do, escape on an apparent technicality. An amendment to the Executive Order to capture “shadow lobbying” could be followed by a corresponding change in the lobbying laws to greatly enlarge the numbers subject to mandatory disclosure requirements.

The appeal to close a loophole packs its usual punch. It answers the frustration over apparent inconsistency (the demand that those doing similar things be treated alike), and the extension of reporting requirements to “shadow lobbying” would help create a more complete picture of the total dollars spent on influencing public policy. But, as always, there are complications and competing considerations that should affect how a reform like this is designed--with what limiting principles--and how it is administered.

Are There Genuine Issue Ads or Just “Sheep’s Wool”?

December 2, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Progressives thinking about the experience with reform have to grapple with its implications for mobilization, for effective political speech and action. As previously noted here, one traditional reform objective – – regulating issue advertising – – bears reconsideration For years, a priority has been to expand the rules to cover certain issue advertising within election seasons. The authors of McCain Feingold settled on what they took to be an objective test--define the election season as a month to two months before an election, and then capture within reporting requirements ads that simply” refer” to a candidate and are directed to his or her electorate. The ads affected would surely be “sham” ads, intended to influence the election, and disclosure of the financing of these “electioneering communications” would be appropriate, as it is in the case of clear-cut campaign advertising.

But is there such a thing as a genuine issue ad--one that is designed to discuss candidates in relation to issues but without, within the four corners of the ad, expressly calling for the candidate’s election or defeat? Or to put it in doctrinal terms, may the government reporting rules reach ads that do not involve either express electoral advocacy or its “functional equivalent”? The Court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission took it more or less for granted that genuine issue ads would not be subject to mandatory disclosure. 540 U.S. 93, 206 n.88 (2003) (“ [W]e assume that the interests that justify the regulation of campaign speech might not apply to the regulation of genuine issue ads").

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court devoted a line to the seemingly contrary conclusion, suggesting in the most general terms that "the public has an interest in knowing who was speaking about a candidate shortly before an election." Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, 369 (2010). But its discussion on this point was short, and it also appeared in a case that involved a communication--a movie--that was plainly intended to influence voter choice. It was decidedly not a case about “genuine” issues speech.

The Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization, has pressed on this issue with a challenge to the application of the reporting rules to an ad lacking either express advocacy or its functional equivalent--i.e. a "genuine issue ad.” The ad named two Senators, one running for election, in appealing for support of pending legislation on criminal justice reform. A three-judge district court last month rejected the claim that the ad was constitutionally protected. The Court relied on the language of Citizens United. It appeared satisfied that even in the case of a genuine issue ad, a reference to a candidate was sufficient to trigger the electioneering communication disclosure requirements. Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission, No. 14-cv-1500, 2016 WL656396 (D.D.C. November 3, 2016).

One question recently raised here is whether in thinking about campaign finance reform, New York Times editorialists and their followers would place a limit on how much would be spent, and how negatively, to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. The Times believes him to dangerous to the country, entirely unfit for office, at the same time that it counsels that the process by which he or any candidate is evaluated must include restrictions on expenditures to urge defeat (or election). It is fair to note these tensions, testing reform principles and intuitions in the concrete conditions of electoral competition where there are found real candidacies, meaningful choices, and serious consequences.

A similar test might be conducted in the case of limits directed toward the timing of certain speech. Under campaign finance jurisprudence, the First Amendment recognizes a difference between fully protected “issues” speech and the speech with the effect or purpose of influencing elections that may be regulated to prevent corruption or its appearance. The reforms of recent years have whittled away at the distinction, regulating electioneering communications on policy issues that may contain a reference to a candidate and so, being close to an election, could sway voters. The usual formula ropes this speech into regulatory control within thirty or sixty days of an election.

The reform theory has been that the purpose of such communications is likely to influence an election, and if not the purpose, then its effect, and records have been assembled to establish that the spenders have in mind to make a mockery of the law and that stricter enforcement is therefore essential. In the thick of the election, it is argued, the candidate/issue line distinction does not hold, and the aims of campaign finance laws, both limitations and disclosure, should control. The Supreme Court has trimmed back this theory, and a now complex jurisprudence allows for election season-specific regulation of communications “susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission, 551 U.S. 449, 469-470 (2007).

In the current election, the Trump candidacy will test acceptance of the basic reform tenet about the election season regulation of issues speech.  With the debate about Trump has come a debate about the package of stances that has come to be known as “Trumpism.” A number of his supporters have defined it as “ secure borders, economic nationalism, interests-based foreign policy, and above all judging every government action through a single lens: does this help or harm Americans?” It is recognized that the program cannot be argued, for or against, without reference to Trump: “For now, the principal vehicle of Trumpism is Trump.”  And Trump critics, ones as severe as Paul Krugman, recognize the “Trumpism” behind Trump.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to take up a major case about disclosure and this has received little attention—far less than it should. At issue is the clarification of how far government authority extends in requiring the disclosure of the financing of “issues speech”--speech or just information about candidates’ positions that does not involve engaging in advocacy of their election or defeat. There are reasons why the case might have been overlooked: it involves a small organization in a small state, and the activity concerns state and local, not federal (much less presidential), candidates. Perhaps, also, because it is “just” about disclosure, this case might be supposed to pose little danger of harm to anyone’s rights or legitimate expectations.

This is serious business. As the states move along with their own reform programs, and as litigation proceeds under different standards applied by different circuits and diminishing consistency in the treatment of federal and state or local-level enactment, disclosure doctrine is losing its coherence, and key constitutional distinctions once taken for granted are being rapidly eroded. One disturbing result: the “big” and sophisticated spenders at the federal level are more protected than the “little guy” at the levels below.

In the case in question, Delaware Strong Families v. Denn, the speech took the form of a Voter Guide that reproduced positions supplied by the candidates themselves, or in the case of candidates who declined to cooperate, their stated positions drawn from the public record. DSF is a 501(c)(3) barred from endorsing candidates, unlike an affiliated (c)(4) that may and does. There is no allegation that the (c)(3) is evading the prohibition on partisan speech. Delaware has enacted a disclosure law that applies to this Guide, requiring the disclosure of DSF donors who have given over $100 over a four- year period. The law covers all speech referring to candidates, whether by broadcast, mail or Internet, within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general. It is triggered by the expenditure of more than $500 without regard to the size of the audience.

DSF sued and won in district court, then suffered a reversal of fortune in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The short opinion issued by the Third Circuit is striking in its breadth and, one might say, daring. It looks past the critical Buckley distinction between express and issue advocacy, apparently in the belief that, on this point, the 1976 decision has been overtaken by the decisions in McConnell and Citizens United, especially the latter, which it reads to allow for the regulation of any issues speech that could influence voter choice. So, on the assumption that its position is well supported by recent developments in the constitutional law, the Third Circuit embraced this view:

By selecting issues on which to focus, a voter guide that mentions candidates by name and is distributed close to an election is, at a minimum, issue advocacy. Thus, the disclosure requirements can properly apply to DSF’s Voter Guide…”

793 F.3d 304, 309 (July 16, 2015)

The State of Delaware has joined with reform organizations to defend this proposition. It concedes that the statute is expansive in reach, sweeping in smaller organizations and small-scale spending. But it justifies aggressive disclosure policy in a state the size of Delaware, where a little spending goes a long way. It contends that states have the right to decide how much spending is effective in the local conditions in which it occurs, taking in account the size of the electorate and other factors, and to apply disclosure requirements accordingly.   And the states can conclude that issues speech—in this case, the duplication of material the candidates supply –triggers mandatory disclosure of small donors in the interests of an informed electorate.