Fortunately, Forced Disclosure Poses No Threat of Retaliation

In the debate over forced disclosure, including disclosure of grassroots lobbying expenditures, proponents of regulation have argued that such forced disclosure poses no threat to free political speech.

 Yesterday comes news that Sam Fox has withdrawn his name from consideration as Ambassador to Belgium, a position to which he was nominated by President Bush.  Fox’s nomination began to run into trouble when Senator John Kerry (D-MA), showed up at Fox’s hearing to denounce Fox for having contributed to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – a group that ran ads critical of Senator Kerry during the latter’s 2004 run for president.  Now, whether or not financing a political group should disqualify one from serving as Ambassador is an interesting question: perhaps it should.  But let us not kid ourselves that retaliation for voicing one’s political views is not real.  Sam Fox is not going to be ambassador to Belgium for one reason and one reason only: as TPM Muckraker reports, quoting the Associated Press, "Democrats are raising concerns about Fox’s nomination to be ambassador to Belgium because of a $50,000 contribution Fox made in 2004 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth…."

We also find it interesting that this is justified by some on the grounds that the Fox was, "financ[ing] smears and lies of combat veterans," a statement that is clearly, at best, only half true.  Most of the Swift Boat Vet ads, from what we can see, involve competing claims in which the best evidence may lead one way or the other, but it is hard to say conclusively that either side is lying.  On most of these ads we voice no opinion.  On the other hand, however, there seems to be no doubt whatsoever that the most effective Swift Boat Veteran ads, that showing a video clip of Senator Kerry’s testimony to Congress in the early 1970s, in which he accuses U.S. soldiers of numerous atrocities, is clearly true, and has never been denied by Senator Kerry.  Nevertheless, one of Fox’s opponents, Senator Chris Dodd (himself now a presidential candidate) was opposing Fox because Fox, "refused to apologize." 

This is, pure and simple, retaliation for political speech.  Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that this problem does not exist elsewhere.  Disclosure is, stripped to its core, government spying on citizen political activity.  There are times when its benefits may outweigh its cost, just as we sometimes allow government to spy on, surveil, or track its citizens in other circumstances.  But it should not be undertaken lightly.  It is not, "just disclosure."  It is regulation of fundamental First Amendment Rights that can only be justified by a compelling government interest.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.