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Anonymous Attacks Against LA Progressives

This summer, an organization called Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) finds itself the target of dozens of baseless public records requests instigated by an anonymous right wing entity apparently seeking to intimidate and harass the organization.

LAANE has long fought for policies to raise wages, protect the environment, and enhance community input on new box stores. In other words, they have gotten in the way when giant corporations have put profit maximization over the rights of workers, consumers, and communities. Perhaps that is why they now find themselves the subject of an extensive fishing expedition for public records that can be taken out of context and demagogued ad nauseam.

An opposition research company that has worked with conservative candidates and causes in California has sent dozens of letters to public officials across the state demanding all communications between LAANE and more than 70 public officials going back a number of years.

So who hired the opposition research firm? Who is it that is apparently hoping to use public disclosure laws to do a hatchet job on LAANE?

Good question, since they refuse to identify themselves.

At least when conservatives in Wisconsin and Michigan used baseless public records requests to intimidate and harass academics at public universities, we knew which far right pro-corporate entities were doing it (ALEC and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy).

In light of the numerous deceptive actions designed to destroy Planned Parenthood, ACORN, NPR, and Shirley Sherrod, it is more important than ever to fight right wing efforts to smear people and organizations who they see as standing in the way of their agenda.

People For the American Way stands with LAANE in demanding an end to the anonymous attack, and you can, too, by signing this petition calling on those who are behind the attack on LAANE to reveal their identities. Democracy is strengthened by the free and robust exchange of ideas and arguments, not by anonymous efforts to intimidate and discredit those who disagree with you.

PFAW

ALEC maintains its secrecy with hypocritical media policy

As the American Legislative Exchange Council wraps up its summer conference in New Orleans this week, and the group maintains its usual modus operandi: presenting legislators with pre-written bills designed to increase corporate profits – in secret – then sitting back and watching elected officials enact those bills into law.

Earlier this week, PFAW teamed up with other progressive allies to hold a press conference across the street from the ALEC convention and highlight the negative affects that ALEC-sponsored legislation has on real Americans. Yet it would have been nice to have a first-hand account of what was happening inside.

Eric Carlson, a journalist with the Center for Media and Democracy, tried to gain access to ALEC’s events, but was repeatedly kicked out and threatened with arrest, even though the CMD did not violate ALEC’s press guidelines. According to Carlson,

After filling out my registration form to receive press credentials, I was told by an alarmed ALEC intern to wait while she fetched her boss. While I did not think she had ever heard my name, the look on her face made me think that perhaps she had heard of our new project ALEC Exposed.org. A very stern looking gentleman -- Ted Wagnon of Vox Global Communications -- arrived and told me my application would be denied on the grounds that the Center for Media and Democracy was an "advocacy organization." I asked Wagnon for a written explanation, and he handed me ALEC's Media Policy, which bears no mention of "advocacy organizations." Instead, news outlets funded by a "think-tank, political party, lobbying organization, trade association, or corporation" are forbidden from registering. CMD complies with this criteria even though most media outlets (owned by major corporations) do not…

Marriott security guards swarmed to where I was standing, demanding again that I leave the hotel or "face arrest." I escaped before they could follow through on their other promise of taking my picture for their permanent records. My only comfort? Al Jazeera English was also denied credentials on the grounds that ALEC was not an “international” conference -- even though it has an International Relations Task Force whose priority results in the offshoring of U.S. jobs and even though international politicians were addressing the conference.

You can read the rest of Carlson’s account here.

PFAW

Politico's Playbook Misses the Call on ALEC

Politico’s Mike Allen publishes a daily run-down on the happenings in Washington called the “Playbook,” in which he boils down the news of the day into salient tidbits that fit easily on your smartphone screen. However, he missed the call on a Bloomberg article sounding the drumbeat against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive organization that facilitates meetings between corporate executives and state legislatures to help shepherd corporate-written bills into law.

The “seat at the legislative drafting table” is in fact exactly what it sounds like, and the process is detailed in a PFAW report. Corporate representatives, or “task-force members,” sit down with state legislators and hand them “model bills” to introduce in their respective statehouses. The result is myriad, nearly identical, extremely specialized and pro-corporate bills being introduced in legislatures around the country that carry serious repercussions for the environment, consumer safety, and working families – all for the sake of these corporations’ bottom line. Needless to say, ALEC member companies pay handsomely for this privilege.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN – “Koch, Exxon Mobil Among Corporations Helping Write State Laws,” by Bloomberg’s Alison Fitzgerald: “Koch Industries Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. are among companies that would benefit from almost identical energy legislation introduced in state capitals from Oregon to New Mexico … The energy companies helped write the legislation at a meeting organized by a group they finance, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a [state government] policy institute known as ALEC. The corporations, both ALEC members, took a seat at the legislative drafting table beside elected officials and policy analysts by paying a fee between $3,000 and $10,000.” The legislation pressures govs to leave the Western Climate Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade program. http://bloom.bg/prxOw4

--PLAYBOOK TRANSLATION: The collusion turns out to be a think tank’s model legislation, called up on the web by like-minded legislators. The “seat at the legislative drafting table” turns out to be foundation donations or annual-meeting sponsorships. 

ALEC is perhaps one of the gravest threats facing our democracy today – and sugarcoating their secretive workings does no favor to the American people.

PFAW

ALEC’s Elections Agenda

Justin wrote earlier today about the trove of model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that the Center for Media and Democracy released today. ALEC, which is funded largely by corporate interests, is a driving force behind a whole lot of state-level legislation that helps out big business at the expense of individual citizens – legislation that curtails workers’ rights, undercuts public education and other essential government services and, most importantly, and big tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy.

The agenda that ALEC helps to spread to state legislatures doesn’t just help give the group’s corporate funders a leg up – it also helps them keep American voters from wresting away any power they have in the electoral process.

The Nation’s John Nichols went through the ALEC legislation and found not only model Voter ID language – variations of which have been introduced in 33 states this year -- but various attempts to keep voters from imposing campaign finance limits:

Beyond barriers to voting, ALEC is also committed to building barriers to direct democracy. Horrified by the success of living-wage referendums and other projects that have allowed voters to enact protections for workers and regulations for businesses, ALEC’s corporate sponsors have pushed to toughen the rules for voter initiatives. “The legislative process should be the principal policy-making vehicle for developing state law,” declares one 2006 resolution, which specifically mentions concerns about state minimum wage laws, taxation and “the funding of other government programs and services.” ALEC’s Resolution to Reform the Ballot Initiatives Process recommends making it harder to qualify referendum language and suggests that proposals on fiscal issues should require supermajorities to become law.

ALEC is also determined to ensure that citizens do not have the final say on who is elected president, an agenda outlined in such documents as its Resolution in Support of the Electoral College and its ardent opposition to the National Popular Vote project (which it has warned would “nationalize elections and unravel Federalism”). A related resolution encourages state legislatures to formally complain that an interstate compact to defer to the popular will “would allow a candidate with a plurality—however small—to become President.” While ALEC worries about the candidate with the most votes winning, it has no problem with policies that increase the likelihood that the candidate with the most money and corporate support will prevail. Its 2009 Resolution Supporting Citizen Involvement in Elections bluntly “opposes all efforts to limit [citizen] involvement by limiting campaign contributions.” A resolution approved last year expresses support for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. ALEC even opposes moves to give shareholders a say in the expenditure of corporate funds on campaigning. At the same time, ALEC urges legislators to fight the “federal takeover” of state election procedures, objecting in particular to universal standards for voting procedures.

PFAW

New Tool Gives Unprecedented Insight into ALEC

Today, the Center for Media & Democracy and The Nation unveiled www.ALECexposed.org, an important resource that provides key insight into the workings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the shadowy organization that shepherds corporate-crafted bills through state legislatures, as detailed in this PFAW Foundation report. This new wiki-style website allows you view the actual legislation ALEC is pushing, including bills affecting:

These “model bills” are extraordinarily influential – they reach almost every state, and give incredible advantages to big corporations by carving special loopholes into environmental, tax and safety regulations and slashing worker and consumer protections. Below is a clip of PFAW’s Andrew Gillum discussing ALEC’s work with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell:

 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

PFAW

Lawrence O'Donnell Exposes ALEC

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

Last night, People For’s Andrew Gillum went on the Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss PFAW Foundation's new report on ALEC, the group that helps corporate donors get legislation they like placed in statehouses.

Read the report and watch the clip:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

PFAW

ALEC to Hold Summit in Cincinnati

ALEC, a little known but enormously influential shadow right-wing policy organization, will be holding a summit in Cincinnati, Ohio today. Don’t be surprised that you didn’t know about it—unless you’re a top representative of a deep-pocketed corporation, you probably weren’t invited.

ALEC’s primary function is to ghostwrite bills for state legislators. Corporations pay a pretty penny for the access ALEC provides to elected officials, making this organization the epitome of pay-to-pay backroom politics.

It’s no wonder that Ohio policymakers are pursuing such an extreme pro-corporate agenda. If it requires millions of dollars to buy a ticket to the smoke-filled backroom, there’s just no way the middle class can compete.

PFAW

A Defense of Academic Freedom in Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin has responded to the state GOP's request for the e-mails of Professor William Cronon relating to the clash over collective bargaining in that state. This was the opening salvo in a series of such requests to bully and intimidate university professors.

Talking Points Memo reports that the University has complied with the request, paying due respect to protecting academic freedom, among other values:

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under [federal law]. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Chancellor Biddy Martin also posted a message to the campus community to help ensure that academic freedom would not be chilled by the Republicans' assault:

Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

To the extent that the GOP hoped to find evidence that Professor Cronon was using state computers to engage in partisan political activities, they're out of luck:

We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

But this should not be the end of the story. As we have noted previously, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. If the party officials involved with this are not held accountable for their overreach, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

PFAW

The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

PFAW

Wisconsin Republicans Clamp Down on the Right to Criticize Them

Wisconsin Republicans have escalated their assault on Democrats, liberals, unions, and anyone else who does not fall into line for their ideological agenda. This time, it is the right to criticize the Republican Party that is under attack, as the Cap Times reports:

The Wisconsin Republican Party, apparently stung by a blog post written by UW-Madison history professor William Cronon, has responded by asking the University of Wisconsin-Madison for copies of all of Cronon's office e-mails that mention prominent Republicans or public employee unions.

Cronon revealed the GOP's Freedom of Information Act request in his Scholar as Citizen blog post late Thursday evening along with a lengthy, and typically scholarly, defense.

In his inaugural blog post on March 15, Cronon, one of the UW's academic stars, had sketched the apparent influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadow conservative policy group that works with Republican state legislators, on Gov. Scott Walker's legislative agenda. It was the first time the respected professor had used a blog format and he was, to put it mildly, surprised by the response. The blog generated more than half a million hits. For many of his readers, it was the first time they were aware of the organization and its involvement with conservative legislators around the country.

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, major Walker campaign contributors, provide funding support for ALEC. ...

The Republican request, filed two days after Cronon's March 15 post appeared, asks for "Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon's state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell."

The named individuals are the Republican governor, the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate, and the eight Republican senators targeted for recall.

Professor Cronon has written a long, must-read response to this political effort to intimidate him for daring to question the Republican Party.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's assault on academic freedom in Virginia. Academic freedom exists only in name if scholars questioning the Republican Party are bullied into not using it. In that sense, the Wisconsin assault against Professor Cronon is directly related to all the other ways that the modern-day GOP is actively undermining the infrastructure of our democracy, giving us:

  • elections where significant numbers of the GOP's opponents are prevented from voting;
  • campaigns where the GOP's opponents can't be heard over corporate millions;
  • the right to protest, but if you oppose a Republican official he may secretly plant troublemakers among your group to discredit you;
  • the right to a free press, but if a Republican who you criticize sends his goons to rough you up, the Party will not bat an eye;
  • the right to form a union that cannot collectively bargain;
  • the right to free speech, but if you displease the GOP you risk becoming the subject of phony video smears followed up by legislative attack;
  • the right to lobby, but your lobbying firm loses access to a GOP-dominated Congress if it hires Democrats.

In isolation, the incident in Wisconsin is terrible. But to see it only in isolation would be a grave mistake.

If the party officials involved with this are not condemned and banished from the party, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society – as in the examples above – significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

This incident should be a rallying cry for Americans to protect the liberties and rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

PFAW