In the Tea Party, it’s all the rage these days to declare everything unconstitutional – Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, disaster relief, federal civil rights laws, health care reform, basically any law that enables the federal government to take on national-scale problems.
One of the main strategies that the Tea Party has been using to push this extreme and regressive view of the Constitution is pushing aside the Commerce Clause, the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”
The Commerce Clause, long recognized by courts as the rationale for important progressive economic programs, has come under fire from opponents of health care reform, who are arguing in the courts – with mixed success -- that the clause does not allow the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate.
In a new report, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin argues that “a powerful case can be made “that the Commerce Clause is “the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”
Without it, Congress could not have passed the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition of race discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and dozens of other federal statutes protecting the environment and establishing the rights of citizens in the workplace and the marketplace.
Why, then, does the Commerce Clause seem pale and dull next to the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses?
Perhaps it is because these provisions clearly declare radiant principles of liberty and equality that translate into easily understood and intuitively attractive protections against arbitrary government power.
Because the Commerce Clause has been a powerful instrument of social reform over the last century, its meaning has periodically provoked deep jurisprudential controversy. This is ironic since the Court routinely and unanimously upheld congressional assertion of a comprehensive federal commerce power before broad democratic purposes entered the picture. The commerce power became the target of virulent attack by corporate conservatives when progressives and labor gained political influence and used this power as the constitutional basis upon which to regulate and improve the character, terms and conditions of the American workplace and marketplace in favor of large numbers of the American people.
Raskin follows the Commerce Clause from its origins at the Constitutional Convention, through the Lochner era, when an activist court “put the Commerce Clause in a straightjacket” to strike down federal worker protection laws and other attempts to regulate interstate commerce, to the late 1930s, when the court returned to a more expansive view of the clause, allowing progressive economic programs and civil rights reforms to flourish, to the Rehnquist Court, which again began to narrow down the scope of Congress’s constitutional regulatory power, to challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which threaten to take us back to the Lochner era.
Senate Republicans have called Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, David Nimocks of the Alliance Defense Fund and Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center as witnesses in today’s hearing on the “Defense of Marriage Act.” The groups these witnesses represent have a long record of extreme rhetoric opposing gay rights:
CitizenLink, Focus on the Family’s political arm, is a stalwart opponent of gay rights in every arena:
• Focus on the Family has consistently railed against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, demanding the discriminatory policy’s reinstatement.
• The group claims anti-bullying programs that protect LGBT and LGBT-perceived youth in schools amount to “homosexual indoctrination” and “promote homosexuality in kids.”
• The group insists that House Republicans investigate the Justice Department over its refusal to defend the unconstitutional Section 3 of DOMA.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center is backed by the far-right Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Koch- backed Castle Rock Foundation, all well-known right-wing funders.
• George Weigel of EPPC wrote in June that “legally enforced segregation involved the same kind of coercive state power that the proponents of gay marriage now wish to deploy on behalf of their cause.”
• Ed Whelan spearheaded the unsuccessful and widely panned effort to throw out Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 decision finding California’s Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional on the grounds that Walker was in a committed same-sex relationship at the time of the decision.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which bills itself as a right-wing counter to the American Civil Liberties Union, is dedicated to pushing a far-right legal agenda:
• The ADF has been active on issues including pushing "marriage protection," exposing the "homosexual agenda" and fighting the supposed "war on Christmas."
• The ADF claims 38 “victories” before the Supreme Court, including: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations to spend unlimited money on elections in the name of “free speech” and Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), which allowed the Boy Scouts to fire a Scout Leader because he was gay.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors, holding in a 7-2 decision that the ban violated the First Amendment. PFAW Foundation Communications Director Drew Courtney visited DC’s Fox 5 News this morning to discuss how the Court’s decision protects the principles of free speech, while strengthening the rights of parents to decide what’s best for their children:
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want to influence elections. Yesterday, the Court ruled that wealthy candidates and campaign donors have the First Amendment right not to have their spending matched by their opponents.
Welcome to the new logic of free speech in elections.
In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that a crucial provision of Arizona’s landmark clean elections law, which provides matching funds to publicly financed candidates who are up against particularly well-financed opponents, to be unconstitutional. Why? Because the provision to put publicly financed candidates on even footing with their privately financed opponents “chills” the speech of wealthy individuals and groups who want to pour money into elections.
Yes, if you’re a wealthy person or interest group looking to buy an impact in an election, you might be put off by knowing that, because of matching funds, you would never be able to overwhelm a publicly funded opponent into comparative silence. But, looking at it from the other side, if you’re a candidate who wants to spend your campaign talking to voters rather than donors, you might hesitate to take public financing if you knew you would never be able to even come close the funds of your opponent – without matching funds, the public financing system is all but useless. By taking away the mechanism by which a greater number of candidates can make their voices heard, the Court has stifled speech, rather than protected it.
Justice Elena Kagan, in a zinger-laden dissent, took on the majority’s “more speech is less speech” argument:
The First Amendment's core purpose is to foster a healthy, vibrant political system full of robust discussion and debate. Nothing in Arizona's anticorruption statute, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act, violates this constitutional protection. To the contrary, the Act promotes the values underlying both the First Amendment and our entire Constitution by enhancing the "opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people."
People For’s Marge Baker had this to say:
The Roberts Court has once again twisted the Constitution to benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving ordinary Americans with a diminished voice. Like in Citizens United v. FEC, which prohibited legislatures from limiting corporate spending to influence elections, the Court’s majority has strayed from the text and history of the Constitution in order to prevent citizens from maintaining control over our democracy. The Roberts Court would do well to remember that the Constitution was written to protect democracy for all people, not just the rich and powerful. Today it has ruled not only that the wealthy have a right to spend more but that they have a right that everyone else spend less.
A divided Supreme Court issued two business-friendly decisions today that demonstrate why, under Chief Justice Roberts, it is frequently called the Corporate Court.
In the first of these, Sorrell v. IMS Health, a 6-3 Court (the five usual suspects joined by Justice Sotomayor) struck down a common-sense medical privacy law passed by Vermont. As part of its comprehensive regulation of pharmaceuticals, the state requires pharmacies to retain certain information about prescriptions and the doctors that order them. Knowing that the drug companies would love to take advantage of this information in order to target doctors to sell more of their product, Vermont protected medical privacy by prohibiting the sale to or use of this data by drug companies without the prescribing doctor's authorization.
According to the Roberts Court, the law allows anyone else to use the data for any other purpose and therefore cannot be defended as protecting medical privacy. It therefore characterizes the law as targeting speech based on the identity of the speaker and the content of the message, thereby triggering heightened First Amendment scrutiny (which – surprise, surprise – the privacy protection law fails to meet).
Justice Breyer's dissent recognizes the Vermont law as the standard, commonplace regulation of a commercial enterprise. It doesn't prohibit or require anyone to say anything, to engage in any form of symbolic speech, or to endorse any particular point of view. It simply addresses a problematic abuse of the prescription data. As the dissenters point out, the federal and state governments routinely limit the use of information that is collected in areas subject to their regulation, as pharmaceuticals have been for over 100 years. Surely heightened First Amendment scrutiny should not be triggered by a law that, for instance, prohibits a car dealer from using credit scores it gets for one purpose (to determine if customer is credit-worthy) for another (to search for new customers).
The dissent states that the Court has never before subjected standard, everyday regulation of this sort to heightened First Amendment scrutiny. Yet this is not the first time that arch-conservative ideologues have taken everyday economic regulation and struck it down on the basis of freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In fact, the dissenters specifically warn of a return to
the bygone era of Lochner v. New York, in which it was common practice for this Court to strike down economic regulations adopted by a State based on the Court's own notions of the most appropriate means for the State to implement its considered policies.
With Lochner, ideologues routinely struck down consumer and worker protection laws as violating the Due Process Clause so they could impose their own policy preferences. Simply replacing Due Process with Free Speech does not suddenly make this radicalism valid.
Workers, labor unions, and the American people celebrated a tremendous victory for middle class values on Tuesday when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a proposed rule protecting workers’ rights by eliminating excessive delays in workers’ votes on forming unions to represent them in the workplace. The ruling was a major step forward for the rights of workers given the growing anti-worker and anti-union sentiment which has been spreading across the country.
In brief, the proposed rule would allow workers to quickly vote on whether or not to organize a union: a process which has often taken months and sometimes years, if at all. As a result, private-sector union representation has fallen to an astonishing 6.9%, which is 30 points less than 50 years ago. By removing barriers from the unionizing process, the new rule would enhance workers’ access to fair votes on union representation.
As expected, the board’s proposal was met with sharp criticism from the pro-corporate Right. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Randy Johnson condemned the ruling as "…an attempt to, simply put, bully companies into relinquishing their free speech rights." Such criticism, however, comes as no surprise. We have repeatedly seen pro-corporate conservative interests sacrifice the needs and fundamental rights of hardworking Americans to the interests of maximizing profit-taking at all costs.
By proposing this new rule, the NLRB is not only giving workers a voice but also helping protect and rebuild America’s middle-class. As the national unemployment rate continues to linger around 9%, workers’ benefits are being cut, and millions fear losing their jobs and homes, CEOs and other corporate leaders remain locked in their ivory tower as they continue to rake in obscene profits.
Restoring and strengthening the American middle-class is not only important for individual workers and their families but should also be a national priority as we work to rebalance our economy and make it sounder and stronger than ever.
In October and December of 2010, the Department of Education took a stand for LGBT youth by issuing guidance to address bullying in schools, especially as it relates to federal education anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. While the language does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity, the Department has made clear that harassment on these grounds, under certain circumstances, violates Title IX.
Yesterday, the Department of Education released new guidance, this time focusing on the right of students under the Equal Access Act to form extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments. Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community. Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.
[ . . . ]
It is important to remember, therefore, that the Equal Access Act’s requirements are a bare legal minimum. I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students’ sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech.
The announcement was met with strong support across the safe schools community.
Eliza Byard, Executive Director, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network:
Secretary Duncan's Dear Colleague letter is a clear signal to schools and school districts that they may not discriminate against students who seek to form Gay-Straight Alliances. We are grateful to the Department of Education for supporting students' rights, attempting to prevent discrimination and affirming the positive contributions Gay-Straight Alliances make to the life of our schools, right alongside other non-curricular clubs.
Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office:
Gay-straight alliances can play a crucial role in improving students’ lives. Just as with other extra-curricular groups and clubs, students have a federal legal right to form GSAs. Our public schools should be promoting fairness and acceptance, not discrimination.
Gay-Straight Alliances are powerful forces in our schools. Not only do they offer a safe and supportive environment for LGBT students but they allow straight allies to show their support. One of the most powerful impacts that a GSA can have, however, is on those students who aren't even members - the very existence of a GSA shows students who may still be coming to terms with their orientations that someone at their school cares.
The Obama administration is planning to issue an executive order that would require government contractors to disclose their political contributions. This will at least shed light on whether taxpayer dollars are used to influence elections now that, because of the Citizens United decision, corporations -- including government contractors -- are permitted to spend unlimited money from their general treasuries on elections.
Of course, massive corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would prefer that these political donations remain a secret in order to preserve their enormous advantage in our current pay-to-play system.
It’s no surprise that their staunch ally Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform committee, is holding yet another politically-motivated hearing, with a stacked witness list, to find out if “President Obama’s proposal would curb free speech and hurt small businesses.”
A coalition of representatives from the American Independent Business Alliance, the American Small Business Council, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and small business owners find this suggestion laughable. In a press telebriefing held this morning, the panel described how it is in fact the exact opposite—the current scenario in which large corporations make political contributions without disclosure requirements – that is detrimental to small business.
Panelists expressed their dismay at how government contracts are awarded to large corporations, when small businesses can provide a better product at significantly lower cost. They wonder what they have to do to get the same sweetheart deals that the large companies with deep pockets and lobbying shops are getting. The problem is that we’ll never know unless these corporations are forced to disclose their political contributions. The fact that they won’t shows that they have something to hide—and Americans would surely demand better stewardship of their tax dollars if they knew that their money was ultimately being used for political purposes instead of on services to benefit the public interest. As Marybeth Gardam, owner of EarthStuff LLC summarized, “Transparency is a small business value.”
It is also an American value, and one that we should demand throughout our political system.
People For president Michael Keegan has more on the disclosure proposal in the Huffington Post.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on politicking, has caused ripples of sometimes unexpected consequences – from the toppling of long-established state laws to the rise of secretive corporate spending groups that operate outside the reach of disclosure laws. Now The Nation has uncovered another destructive consequence of the decision:
On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.
The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State —which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.
Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations.
“Before Citizens United, federal election law allowed a company like Koch Industries to talk to officers and shareholders about whom to vote for, but not to talk with employees about whom to vote for,” explains Paul M. Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University. But according to Secunda, who recently wrote in The Yale Law Journal Online about the effects of Citizens United on political coercion in the workplace, the decision knocked down those regulations. “Now, companies like Koch Industries are free to send out newsletters persuading their employees how to vote. They can even intimidate their employees into voting for their candidates.” Secunda adds, “It’s a very troubling situation.”
The Kochs were major supporters of the Citizens United case; they were also chief sponsors of the Tea Party and major backers of the anti-“Obamacare” campaign. Through their network of libertarian think tanks and policy institutes, they have been major drivers of unionbusting campaigns in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.
“This sort of election propaganda seems like a new development,” says UCLA law professor Katherine Stone, who specializes in labor law and who reviewed the Koch Industries election packet for The Nation. “Until Citizens United, this sort of political propaganda was probably not permitted. But after the Citizens United decision, I can imagine it’ll be a lot more common, with restrictions on corporations now lifted.”
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:
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.
When Congress debated and ultimately passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, detractors unfairly criticized the law as a threat to free speech and religious freedom. Opponents, especially from the Religious Right, tried to cover up their animus by maintaining that efforts to protect people against violent crime were really attempts to ban “hate speech,” and consequently “criminalize religion."
Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, writes about how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Snyder v. Phelps yet again exposes the dishonesty of the Religious Right’s arguments:
There has been no end of discussion about this church and its antics. Today I want to focus on an overlooked aspect of the controversy: For years, we’ve been hearing Religious Right leaders claim that their freedom to speak out on issues like homosexuality and abortion is at risk. To hear them tell it, “hate speech” laws are just around the corner, and Pastor Bob is only one step away from being tossed in the hoosegow if he dares to read from the Book of Leviticus in the pulpit.
It’s hard to imagine speech more hateful than that put forth by Westboro Baptist’s members. They think God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality, so they hoist signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IEDs” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”
This is some seriously hateful stuff – and by an 8-1 vote the Supreme Court said in Snyder v. Phelps that it is protected speech. If Westboro Baptist can claim the mantle of the First Amendment to unleash this stuff, I don’t think Pastor Bob has to worry about his pulpit criticisms of same-sex marriage. W
henever cases like this come up, the term “hate speech” is thrown around a lot in the media. Although this term appears in common parlance, it’s not something the courts have adopted. Sure, a lot of speech can be termed “hateful” – and it’s also protected speech. The First Amendment does not require that speech be polite, rational or popular. After all, the First Amendment wouldn’t be very useful if all it did was protect your right to say something everyone agrees with.
The claim that “hate speech” laws are going to shut down fundamentalist churches and gag conservative pastors is, to put it politely, bunk. It was never a persuasive argument, and in light of Wednesday’s ruling stands in shreds. I’m hoping Religious Right leaders will have the decency to stop saying it – but I won’t hold my breath.
Watching "A Fire in My Belly"
The National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit closed last month, but the debate surrounding it is far from over.
On Feb. 17, People For’s president, Michael Keegan joined People For board member Ron Feldman and NYU law professor Amy Adler at Feldman’s gallery to discuss “Hide/Seek” and the right-wing outcry that led to a work of art being removed from the exhibit.
The discussion began with a viewing of a four-minute version of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” which was removed from the exhibit after Religious Right leaders and Republicans in Congress deemed it, in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”
Adler recalled the last time the Religious Right took aim at Wojnarowicz: in the early 1990’s, the American Family Association included edited images of the artist’s work in mailings meant to provoke anger against National Endowment for the Arts spending. Wojnarowicz sued the AFA for copyright violations, and became a symbol of fighting back against right-wing censorship efforts.
Don Wildmon, the head of the AFA at the time, “chose [Wojnarowicz] as a symbol because there is something very powerful about his work,” said Adler. “Ironically, his continuing vulnerability to censorship becomes a testament to the greatness of his art…his art seems to continually provoke and that says something of his greatness.”
Keegan spoke of the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to host the potentially controversial exhibit in the first place. “What the Smithsonian did was wonderful, and we and other groups were very happy that they decided to host the exhibit and celebrate gays and lesbians as part of the American experience,” he said.
When Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough decided to remove the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit in response to an outcry from far-right leaders like the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, People For called on the museum to correct its mistake and put the work back, and then called on Secretary Clough to resign his post. Neither effort succeeded, but the outcry among arts groups and proponents of free speech was strong.
“It wasn’t a victory in terms of putting the piece back and getting Clough out,” said Keegan, “but it was a victory in terms of drawing attention to censorship and starting the discussion.”
Feldman, who has been a leader in the battles over arts funding and freedom of expression for decades, said, “I think it’s the best we’ve ever done in one of these cases.” Although the Religious Right succeeded in getting a work it didn’t like removed from the exhibit, he said, “they had no traction.” Instead, he argued, the controversy spurred discussion of censorship, the AIDS crisis, and Wojnarowicz’s life and work: “We won in the sense that people were talking about David.”
Feldman argued that the art world was successful in fighting back against the Religious Right’s attacks by defining the works in question. “They attack the subject without actually having to deal with the meaning of the artwork,” he said, “The art world fought back with definitions."
Adler, Feldman, and Keegan
This morning, a group of allied organizations held a rally at the Capitol to mark the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. At the rally, People For the American Way and others delivered over 750,000 petitions calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United to members of Rep. Donna Edwards’ staff. Rep. Edwards introduced a constitutional amendment in the House last year, and has been a strong supporter of efforts to reverse the decision.
Representatives from People For, Public Citizen, Move to Amend, Free Speech For People, and MoveOn deliver 750,000 petitions to members of Rep. Donna Edwards’ staff:
People For’s Marge Baker speaks to the crowd:
Protesters put a “for sale” sign on the Capitol:
A protester contests the notion of corporate personhood:
There may be a politically active extremist serving as a sheriff in Arizona. But it’s not Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. On the day of the horrific shootings in Tucson that killed 6, critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and injured 13 others, Sheriff Dupnik, visibly shaken, decried the vicious tone that politics has taken recently, especially in his state. He blamed nobody for the murders but the murderer. But, he said, it was time for some national “soul searching.”
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.
Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences.
Many on the Right saw these remarks and reacted not with an honest discussion of responsibility in political speech, but with a campaign to demonize the sheriff. People For’s Right Wing Watch blog has been reporting these reactions…from statements that Sheriff Dupnik was “politicizing” tragedy to implying that the sheriff wants the killer to go free.
People For’s president, Michael Keegan, responded to the smears on Sheriff Dupnik in the Huffington Post yesterday:
Unfortunately, "civil discourse" is exactly what's lost when calls for honesty and responsibility are demonized and belittled. Nobody but Loughner can be blamed for Saturday's violence. But that does not absolve any of us from the duty to consider the impact of our words and to approach political discourse with honesty and responsibility. Sheriff Dupnik deserves to be thanked, not demonized, for telling that uncomfortable truth.
Those who talk openly and honestly about the dangerous strains in our national political discourse and work to start a more responsible political debate aren't politicizing tragedy--they're working to prevent it. Political figures owe this to all of us who want to participate in democracy without fearing for our safety: those who denounce violence should also denounce the rhetoric that can incite it.
We’re asking those who want to stand in solidarity with the sheriff to sign this letter of support: http://site.pfaw.org/site/PageServer?pagename=sheriff
Even though Republican obstructionism has upheld passage of the DISCLOSE Act in the US Senate twice before, the need to pass the bill has grown more urgent following the midterm election which experienced an onslaught of campaign ads funded by secret money from shadowy groups. The DISCLOSE Act will ensure that organizations who run ads to influence elections reveal to the public their donors, as under current law organizations can hide the identities of all of their donors, damaging transparency and the public’s right to know. In the last vote, 59 US Senators supported bringing the DISCLOSE Act to the Floor for an up-or-down vote, but the Republican minority blocked the vote from taking place.
Newspaper editorial boards from around the US are speaking out, calling for the Senate to act on the DISCLOSE Act:
Regardless of which candidates win, voters lose when they are left in the dark about who is signing the checks to pay for the commercials -- mostly, attack ads -- that dominate political campaigns. Disclosure enables voters to make informed decisions about the message and the candidate. Secrecy leaves them clueless.
The remedy lies in the Disclose Act, which the House has passed and is pending in the Senate. It would expand disclosure requirements to help the public know more about the rivers of money pouring into campaigns. Thus far, it has failed to attract any Republican support, but sponsors say they are willing to drop some nonessential provisions -- prohibiting government contractors from making donations, for example -- to attract at least one or two Republicans.
This bill should be at the top of Congress' agenda in the lame-duck session that begins later this month. It's too late to do anything about this year's elections, but it can remove the shield of secrecy before the next round of races in 2012. A failure to act benefits only those who thrive in political darkness.
The Supreme Court breakthrough even lets businesses hide their identity as they funnel cash to front committees that buy smear ads. To halt this concealment, Democrats in Congress drafted the Disclose Act, which would force big donors out into the daylight. They still could spend freely to buy elections, but they could no longer hide from the public.
The House passed the Disclose Act, but Democrats in the Senate twice could not overcome Republican opposition. "Not a single Senate Republican and only two in the House have been willing to vote for the Disclose Act," the San Jose Mercury News noted.
The Senate is expected to try again after the election -- before more winning Republican senators take their seats. We hope the bill finally passes. It's disgusting that firms now can spend millions of company money to sway elections, under the silly pretext that such spending is free speech. At least, they shouldn't be allowed to hide while they do it.
One solution being offered is the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections), which passed the U.S. House this summer, but not surprisingly stalled in the Senate.
The act, simply summarized, seeks to force those pumping money into campaigns to take personal responsibility for their actions and not hide behind front organizations.
It must be passed. Specifically, corporations, labor unions and nonprofits would have to disclose their donors, and their leaders would have to appear on their television ads noting "I approve of this message."
The DISCLOSE Act, passed by the House of Representatives last year, would require, among other things, that political donors be publicly identified. The bill has majority support in the U.S. Senate, but twice has been blocked when not one Republican senator would vote to break a filibuster - even senators who have supported campaign-finance reform in the past.
There's one last chance to impose a minimum check on the Wild West environment that campaigns have become: let the disclosure provision of the DISCLOSE Act come to a vote in the "lame duck" session of the Senate that begins next week.
There are many reasons why it is important to vote tomorrow. Here are three of them:
Find your polling place here.
Rep. Donna Edwards, the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, reacted today to the letter in support of such an amendment, signed by 50 prominent attorneys and law professors, that People For and Free Speech for People sent to congressional leaders this week:
“Corporate interests have already spent double the money spent in the 2006 midterms to influence our elections and undermine the voice of the American people,” said Congresswoman Edwards. “That is why I introduced an amendment with Chairman John Conyers to the U.S. Constitution immediately after the Roberts’ Court declared that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as citizens. I am pleased that during this chaotic political climate support for my Constitutional Amendment is growing across the country with academics, elected officials, and working families. Now is the time to remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections as they have done this year, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”
You can read more about the letter here.
And watch Rep. Edwards explain the need for a constitutional amendment at the panel we hosted at Netroots Nation this summer. “We back up and back up against a wall of corporations, of corporate money, that isn’t just trying to influence the process, it’s trying to own the process”:
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg this week, former Justice John Paul Stevens touched on his strong opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, to which he wrote an adamant dissenting opinion.
As for the court's recent ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on candidate elections, Stevens thinks it was dead wrong — and, indeed, still doesn't think that money is the same thing as speech. "Can you hear it talk? Can you read it? [Money is] simply not speech," he says. "And I have to confess that my own views are that there is an interest in trying to have any debate conducted according to fair rules that treat both sides with an adequate opportunity to express their view. We certainly wouldn't, in our arguments in this court, give one side a little more time because they could pay higher fees to hire their lawyers, or something like that."
Stevens is hardly alone among legal luminaries in thinking that the decision in Citizens United was flat-out wrong. On Monday, People For and the fair elections group Free Speech For People sent a letter signed by over 50 prominent lawyers and law professors urging Congress to consider amending the Constitution to undo Citizens United.
Corporate political expenditure regulations do not infringe any speech rights of the American people whatsoever. Rather, such regulations reflect the power of the American people to regulate corporations and the rules that govern such entities as the people and our representatives see fit. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent rightly calls the majority opinion a “radical departure from what has been settled First Amendment law.”
Yesterday, Think Progress dropped a campaign finance bombshell when it reported that the US Chamber of Commerce, which is spending tens of millions of dollars this year to run ads supporting GOP candidates in federal elections, is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign owned businesses, including companies owned by foreign governments.
Reliable clean elections proponents, like Minnesota senator Al Franken, spoke out immediately for the FEC to investigate the Chamber’s finances. But the voices in support of campaign finance disclosure haven’t been coming only from the left.
CNBC host Larry Kudlow, a columnist for the conservative National Review, said today that groups like the Chamber and Karl Rove’s shadowy group Crossroads GPS should put their funding and spending records out in the open. According to fact sheet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Kudlow said:
“Why not have the media posting of the contribution information on the Internet? That's all. And let everybody decide… Who, what, when, how, where, who got it? Put it up on the net and let free speech and free politics take its work… American Crossroads and Karl Rove and all them should post also.” [10/6/10]
We reported last week on several groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, that are spending buckets of money to back pro-corporate candidates in this year’s elections, while under no obligation to disclose where their money is coming from. This spending is no small change—the Associated Press reported last week that right-wing, pro-corporate groups have outspent progressive groups 6-1 on television ads this year.
Kudlow’s call for disclosure from these big-spending groups should come as no surprise. Disclosure of campaign spending is a principle embraced by many prominent conservatives, including Justice Antonin Scalia. And when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled in Citizens United v. FEC to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, they did so with an important side note: they were in favor of “prompt disclosure” of the campaign spending.
Up against the reality of corporate-backed groups that will spend enormous amounts of money for their electoral benefit, however, congressional Republicans have been significantly less eager to embrace the idea of full disclosure than that of free spending.
The Chamber of Commerce, for one, seems to be solidly in the congressional Republican camp on the disclosure issue. Asked by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent about Think Progress’s allegations, a spokeswoman for the Chamber responded with a tirade against the blog, denying that the Chamber spends foreign money on electioneering—but refusing to answer any questions on just how that money is kept separate.