The Washington Post Smears Free Speech by Some Groups, Not Others

Last week, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “A two-decade crusade by conservative charities fueled Trump’s exit from Paris climate accord.” Of course, a two-decade campaign to force an exit from the Paris Agreement would not make sense – the agreement was only adopted in 2015, and President Trump had already promised during his campaign to withdraw from it.

What the piece really focuses on, however, is the effort by conservative think tanks – and particularly Myron Ebell, Director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and a leader of the Cooler Heads Coalition – to resist regulations intended to curb climate change. The Post clearly finds such educational and policy work distasteful, and levels many unfair accusations and insinuations against it – in a display of shocking indifference to how their reporting undermines the right of such groups to participate in public policy debates.

The article portrays think tanks in sketchy terms, describing how they “shape policy in the nation’s capital, while claiming to be nonpartisan educational organizations.” The deliberate use of “claiming” here is meant to imply that such organizations are neither nonpartisan, nor merely educational. This kind of backhanded comment is nothing new; those who support increased government regulations on political speech often describe 501(c)(3) charities, like CEI, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations whose views they don’t like as “fake charities” or “dark money,” respectively.

Such skepticism is also nonsensical. Organizations are only “partisan” if they are formally affiliated with a political party. Expressing a consistent viewpoint – even one that overlaps more with one party’s views than another (though not completely) – does not make an organization “partisan.” And to suggest that charities cannot also be educational organizations is absurd. Well-known educational organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Teach for America – even humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross and UNICEF – openly acknowledge the role of public policy in achieving their goals. Every issue where citizens demand government intervention is inherently political. How can we permit some groups to participate in policy advocacy while denying others that same right?

The author then resorts to another timeworn tactic to make CEI and other groups sound unsavory: describing their funding in menacing terms. This includes $300,000 annually from the ExxonMobil Foundation over a six-year period and $280,000 from various conservative foundations in one year. Of course, the figures in the article do not represent anywhere near all of the organization’s contributions – CEI’s total revenue was $4.7 million in 2009 and $7.4 million in 2014, for example. And as CEI pointed out in its response, The Post rarely conducts such detailed reporting of the funding of much larger organizations that they agree with.

Indeed, CEI’s $7.4 million in FY 2015 revenue pales in comparison to Greenpeace Fund’s $17.1 million, Union of Concerned Scientists’ $30.3 million, and Sierra Club Foundation’s $90.8 million in revenue that same year. Those groups focus solely on environmental issues from the opposite perspective, while CEI works in multiple policy areas. Yet The Post doesn’t question those three groups’ right to educate the public on policy issues – and rightfully so.

Another argument made in the article, if applied to all charities instead of only some, would greatly undermine that right, however. The author falsely claims that “[s]uch advocacy is in effect supported by American taxpayers” because contributions to 501(c)(3) charities are tax-deductible, “which means less revenue for the federal government.” This suggests that government is subsidizing activities simply by refraining from taxing them – not through targeted or preferential tax breaks, mind you, but because of a tax status granted to any nonprofit organization that abides by certain restrictions, including on political spending (501(c)(3) charities, like CEI and the environmentally-focused organizations mentioned above, are forbidden from advocating for or against candidates in an election). Imagine if someone suggested to you that your charitable giving or individual tax refunds were “supported by American taxpayers.” That would make no sense – the money is your own, not the government’s.

What would be the real-world consequences of delegitimizing the rights of think tanks to participate in policy debates? We’ve already seen them – the IRS targeted primarily conservative advocacy groups for harassment, while Democratic attorneys general from several states attempted to take legal action against groups like CEI and their allies for holding the “wrong” views on climate policy.

It’s worth a reminder that, whatever one’s views about climate change and environmental regulation (or any policy, for that matter), it is never justifiable to use government to punish or harass those who hold a particular view. Full stop.

The Washington Post’s biased analysis does its best to portray the routine (and entirely legal) educational work of nonprofits as illegitimate – at least for those espousing certain viewpoints. If The Post wants to offer its own thoughts in favor of climate change regulation and the Paris Agreement, it is free to do so. But it should be wary of doing so by debasing the First Amendment rights of private organizations. Such a stance could have dire consequences for more than just CEI.

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