Marching under the banner of “transparency,” there is a growing movement in the U.S. to limit truly free speech. The movement claims to be attacking “dark money,” but the reality is that its adherents want to shut up its ideological opponents. Independent expressions of support or opposition for candidates or political issues are marginalized by irrelevant questions about funding sources. Honest research and well-formulated arguments are denounced as “biased” or “untrustworthy” because of who the donors are rather than based on the merits of the arguments presented.
One doesn’t need to look further than the tragic case of Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Dr. Willie Soon to see how calls for transparency can unjustly harm others and deter future quality research. Soon was recently smeared by the New York Times and organizations like Greenpeace for his allegedly biased scientific research into the theory of catastrophic man-caused climate change.
The Times and others attacked Soon because he did not openly and immediately disclose that he received funding for his research from organizations that have a financial interest in the energy sector. It didn’t matter that Soon’s research was of the highest quality, that Smithsonian received much of the funding itself, or that numerous organizations and individuals who support the theory of manmade climate change also receive funding from parties who have financial interests in the climate debate.
Another attack last week on the Smithsonian was launched last week by MoveOn.org, the activist group founded in the wake of the Clinton impeachment scandals. Activists want to see David Koch – the philanthropist – removed from the boards of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History for being a “denier” of climate change. Koch has donated tens of millions of dollars to these museums for research and exhibits.
Regardless of what you may believe about global warming, it’s undeniable that these attacks and related calls for “transparency” are simply tools used by one side of the debate in an attempt to silence the other.
Rather than debate those who disagree with them, these progressive activists have learned it is far easier to bully, to retaliate, and to destroy. But to blackball people effectively, they need to know donor names so they can isolate and disrupt funding networks. You can only get so far with smears of the messenger and innuendo about disclosed funders. That’s why this transparently intolerant movement has transitioned from ad hominem attacks and boycotts to enlisting the coercive power of the state.
For a while, the campaign operated below the radar, using the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to conduct inquisitions against Tea Party and conservative groups about their funding sources and affiliations in the course of applying for tax exempt status. Around the same time, Wisconsin prosecutors quietly launched secret “John Doe” investigations exclusively targeting subpoenas and surveillance to legions of center-right political groups and interests who were aligned with the policies of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
But then, far from being shamed by public revelations about Lois Lerner’s coordination of the IRS campaign against conservative nonprofits, the aggressive transparency movement targeting the center-right upped the ante.
Like the opening shot of a starter pistol, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) deployed his official letterhead during the summer of 2013 to demand that dozens of conservative think tanks confess that they had supported the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.
In late 2013, the Center for Media & Democracy and ProgressNow repackaged public form 990 information into lazily crafted so-called exposés to launch ad hominem assaults on private donors and successful advocates of conservative causes, labeling center-right public interest groups “stink tanks.”
By the summer of 2014, Arshad Hasan, executive director of ProgressNow, was openly declaring, “The next step for us is to take down this network of [conservative non-profit] institutions that are state-based in each and every one of our states.”
Supporters of this manifestly totalitarian transparency movement insist the public has the right to know who is financially responsible for various social, cultural, and political movements, because if they don’t know, greedy corporations, manipulative religious zealots, or some other allegedly biased group of people will use their deep pockets and political connections to push oppressive policies regular working Janes and Joes don’t actually want. Transparency, they say, is the only way to hold people accountable.
In reality, as the escalation of ad hominem into coercive state action demonstrates, this campaign is really nothing more than an attempt to silence political opponents. Fear of political or social retribution is used to prevent particular causes from being funded. That’s why legal protections for private civic engagement are necessary to ensure that individuals feel safe donating and advocating for causes they believe in without worrying about being personally attacked as a result. Towards that end, the Heartland Institute recently published a Policy Study, titled “In Defense of Private Civic Engagement: Why the Assault on ‘Dark Money’ Threatens Free Speech–and How to Stop the Assault.”
The study advocates several methods for protecting the right to private civic engagement, but the passage of two pieces of model legislation are particularly important to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans on all sides of the political spectrum.
The first proposed law is called the “Free Speech Privacy Act,” and it would act as a “federalism shield” for free speech, “prohibiting the enforcement [by the states] of any law directly or indirectly conditioning the exercise of the rights of free speech and association on the disclosure of the identity of a person or entity who fears a reasonable probability of social, political, or economic retaliation from such disclosure.”
The second important reform proposal is the “Publius Confidentiality Act.” Publius would empower individuals by allowing them to register for an official pseudonym that could be used in political and cultural debates of all sorts, thereby forcing opponents to focus attacks on ideas rather than on individuals, their families, or their businesses.
Increasing privacy protections for individuals is an essential part of ensuring the marketplace of ideas is free from coercive fear tactics designed to silence honest debate. Without these protections, politics will continue to devolve into a political war of all against all, rather than focusing on whose ideas are more likely to improve the nation and promote liberty.