Last week, the debate about health care reform was transformed into one about free speech — specifically, whether the Obama administration is trying to chill the speech of its critics by creating an “enemies list.”
The ruckus started when the White House called on its supporters to help it combat what it calls “disinformation” about its health care agenda that is being propagated through emails, websites, and “casual conversation.” Specifically, it asked: “If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected].”
Of course, the emails forwarded to the White House will usually include the authors’ and recipients’ names, email addresses and other personal information. Following a barrage of criticism that this information could be used to monitor — and thus suppress — the speech of those who oppose administration policies, the White House tried to reassure the public that the president is not ushering in the era of Big Brother.
The White House is right. The era of Big Brother is already here.
Politicians ushered it in long ago with the enactment of federal and state campaign finance laws that require “disclosure” when you spend money to try to influence the outcome of an election. If you want to give money to candidates, ballot issue groups, or advocacy groups, or to spend your money on things like web pages, fliers, and newspaper ads, the government will require you to “name names.” That is, you (or the organization you support) will have to report not only what you spend and what cause or candidate you’re supporting or opposing, but also who you are, where you live, and even where you work. The government will then compile a database of that information and put it on the Internet for all to see.
The effect of this is to encourage political bullying that wouldn’t be possible without mandatory disclosure. For example, last year, California voters passed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. During and after the election, some groups on both sides engaged in donor intimidation. A group supporting the measure sent letters to businesses that donated to a group opposing it, threatening to publicize who they were unless they changed sides. In turn, some opponents of the measure posted online maps with proponents’ home addresses and even succeeded in getting some donors fired from their jobs.
Also last year, a liberal group called Accountable America sent “warning” letters to 10,000 donors to conservative groups, admonishing them that they might be in for legal trouble, public exposure and harassment. In response, a conservative group called Americans for Limited Government Foundation sent letters to donors to liberal organizations, announcing that it would be “monitoring” them and publicizing their support of those organizations.
That disclosure laws are used to chill political speech shouldn’t be surprising — after all, that’s their purpose. Politicians and other defenders of these laws confess as much when they say they want to “get money out of politics.” But getting money out of politics is exactly how to get rid of speech in politics — at least speech that people actually pay attention to. In today’s world, speaking effectively means spending money. You’re much more likely to impact political debate by giving money to a candidate or an advocacy group than you are shouting on the street corner. But unless you stick to the latter politically impotent speech, the government effectively places a bull’s eye on you.
Thus, people are less likely to criticize candidates during election season or give to their opponents — a convenient result for the politicians who enact, expand, or support these laws once they become incumbents.
Ironically, many of these same politicians are now expressing outrage that the Obama administration would consider taking names to suppress speech. Certainly, their outrage would be more principled if they directed at least some of it toward the “disclosure” laws that have institutionalized this practice on a much larger scale, thereby reducing political debates to a contest of which side’s intimidation tactics can silence the most speech.
If you think there’s something fishy about that, I encourage you to let the White House and Congress know.