Destructive Disclosure

Disclosure of donors, we’ve been told, is a vital part of campaign finance "reform" so the public can know who is behind candidates and political messages.

We’ve always been skeptical of this argument, for a variety of reasons. In July 2007 Gigi Brienza, a donor to John Edwards presidential campaign, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post detailing how her name and address wound up on the web site of an extremist animal rights group considered by the FBI to be a serious domestic terrorist threat. The page was a "target" list, and her name appeared under the ominous message "now you know where to find them."

Disclosure essentially amounts to the government making a list of citizens’ political preferences, then making that list publicly available to everyone – your family, your employer, your neighbors, the media, even extremists with a penchant for violence. While there is possibly some benefit to disclosing larger donors to candidates, no similar rationale exists for disclosing donors to issue groups or organizations involved in initiative or referendum campaigns.

The Sacramento Bee yesterday reported on Scott Eckern, formerly the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre. I say "formerly" because his donation to the group behind California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage that passed last week, was the direct cause of his resignation. As the Sacramento Bee  reports:  

Eckern gave $1,000 in support of Proposition 8, a donation that sparked criticism from theater workers and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

"We have released a statement that Scott resigned," said Chris McSwain, community affairs director for the theater company. He declined to comment further…

Eckern also released a statement today saying that he quit "after prayerful consideration to protect the organization and to help the healing in the local theatre-going and creative community."

Eckern said that he "honestly had no idea" that the contribution would spark such outrage and made the donation to act on his belief as the traditional definition of marriage be preserved…

"I definitely do not support any message or treatment of others that is hateful or instills fear," he said. "This is a highly emotional issue and the accusations that have been made against me are simply not true…"

"I am disappointed that my personal convictions have cost me the opportunity to do what I love the most which is to continue enriching the Sacramento arts and theatre community," he said.

Dennis Mangers, a co-chairman of the No on 8 Northern California Committee, has served on the board of the California Musical Theatre for many years. According to campaign contribution records, he has contributed roughly $3,500 in cash and other resources to oppose Prop 8 since June. Mangers also has supported the Human Rights Campaign, the lobbying group that Eckern said he gave $1,000.

Neither CMT’s executive producer nor any other board members made contributions for or against the proposition, according to records available today.

In some quarters, it may be popular to say that Eckern got what he had coming to him for supporting the cause he did, and that his colleagues and members of the community had a right to know what kind of person Eckern was. But I wonder if that rationale would hold up had Eckern given money to support the No on 8 campaign, and then been forced to resign from a firm that had social conservatives as its employee and customer base?

How many citizens, on all sides of a multitude of issues, are reluctant or simply refuse to support causes they believe in because they’re afraid their friends, family, neighbors, employers, colleagues, or anybody else, will know what their political beliefs are?

Disclosure of contributions to candidates at least has some potential anti-corruption value. There is none involving referendum or initiative campaigns, or grassroots advocacy, or anything else that isn’t a direct contribution to a candidate. Disclosure of donors stifles citizen voices and exposes donors to retribution from those who do not share their beliefs, and should be ended.

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