Badgering government for a redress of grievances

February 19, 2011   •  By Sean Parnell
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There’s no shortage of free speech occurring in Wisconsin these days, at least regarding the “budget reform” bill that newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker is trying to pass in the state legislature. It’s encouraging to see this vigorous exercise of the First Amendment in the Badger State, in part because Wisconsin is generally one of the worst climates for political speech in the country:

  • Wisconsin has a “false statements” law that puts the government in charge of determining the “truth” of politically contested ideas, facts, and opinions.
  • Wisconsin requires citizens wishing to spend $25 or more to promote their views on political candidates or ballot issues to register, in advance, with the government as a political committee.
  • Wisconsin requires taxpayers to fund the political speech of candidates they oppose and may even find abhorrent, dishing out taxpayer dollars to candidates for state legislature, Governor, state Supreme Court justice, and other state candidates.
  • Wisconsin limits contributions to only $500 for state Assembly and $1,000 for state Senate candidates. The $10,000 limit for governor and other statewide offices is somewhat more generous, but there is a $10,000 aggregate cap on what a citizen can give to all candidates that severely restricts the ability to raise funds.
  • The Government Accountability Board, which administers Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws, doesn’t seem to feel bound by things like statutory limits or constitutional protections.

But these restrictions, for the most part, leave a great deal of non-campaign related speech alone, allowing the political speech extravaganza to flourish. CCP, of course, has no views on the labor union policy issues at stake.

Beyond that, however, the Wisconsin protests illustrate a few things about political speech.

The protests are a fantastic exercise of First Amendment political rights, with citizens coming to the State Capitol to assemble peaceably (mostly), petition their government for a redress of grievances, and speak freely about their government, elected officials, and public policy choices. It’s great that we live in a country where this sort of activity receives the highest protection.

The issue of “Astroturf” demonstrations has come up again, largely from conservatives, based on the fact that the protests are largely being organized and supported by labor unions with the aid of Organizing for America, a group formed from President Obama’s campaign and now a part of the Democratic National Committee. The same charge, of course, was levied by many liberals against the Tea Party because FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity helped organize and support some of the events.

The charges, on both sides, are absurd—those are real people in the Wisconsin State Capitol demonstrating, waving signs (some them—gasp!—preprinted), voicing their opinions and standing up for what they believe in, just as the Tea Party groups were. There’s nothing at all artificial about a citizen speaking out, even if someone is helping to organize and support their activity.

The fact that both groups are being supported by organized labor or free-market citizen groups is irrelevant to their legitimacy, just as the support by organizations given to those who marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. did not detract from his message. Charges of “Astroturf” are simply an effort to delegitimize a message rather than deal with its relative merits or lack thereof.

That said, many of the demonstrators against Gov. Walker’s proposal seem a bit hazy on how our political system works. There are several references to the idea that because there are large protests, this is in and of itself proves that the legislation is contrary to the “will of the people.” There have also been assertions that the protests are themselves democracy and Walker is a tyrant or dictator comparable to desposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak—or even Adolph Hitler—for not relenting.

But there is a much more official determination of what the “will of the people” is (a misnomer, by the way —there is no such monolithic bloc as “the people”): the elections that were held last fall. In which, of course, a majority of Wisconsin voters decided that Scott Walker should be governor and Republicans should control both the state Assembly and state Senate. So, protests are indeed a part of democracy, but they are not the only part.

As for the charges that Gov. Walker is some sort of tyrant, this is beyond absurd. He was elected on the agenda he’s pursuing, and the voters will have an opportunity in a little less than four years to render judgment on his performance. Hardly the mark of a tyrant, and these charges reflect either frustration or an inability on the part of certain people to accept that in elections, sometimes the other side wins. That’s just how it works.

As the last point made clear, some of the rhetoric is way over the top and hardly consistent with recent calls for a more civil dialogue after the horrific shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Arizona last month. Such speech is protected by the First Amendment, of course. But it does raise the question of whether the scolds who demanded a clampdown on “hateful” and “incendiary” rhetoric, and in some cases called for legislation outlawing certain political speech, will take any note of the crosshairs over Gov. Walker’s picture, placards equating him with Hitler, or many of the other images and statements that would seem to cross the line they drew between acceptable and unacceptable political discourse.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the protests has been the fact that they have extended to the private homes of not just Gov. Walker but also state legislators. To the extent they remain peaceable, these too are of course protected by the First Amendment. A reasonable case can be made that in running for public office, these legislators have signed up for this sort of rough-and-tumble activity.

But it does seem that targeting the private homes of political opponents is a growing trend among some, and it is a concern that those who do not put themselves into the public eye by running for office but still seek to exercise their First Amendment rights by contributing to causes and groups may wind up facing, to quote Frances Fox Piven, “angry crowds” and “unruly mobs” on their front lawn for nothing more than contributing to a group that some enraged activists do not approve of. This is exactly what happened to an executive with Bank of America, and it’s not hard to imagine a donor to National Right to Work or some other group being similarly targeted.

Donor intimidation is nothing new, of course. The state of Alabama sought the donor and member records of the NAACP during the civil rights struggle, donors of as little as $100 to Prop 8 in California faced protests at their workplaces and lost their jobs, and most recently protesters in Palm Springs demonstrated at a private gathering of donors to libertarian and free market groups (25 protesters were arrested when they tried to crash the event).

This, among other reasons, is why we at CCP opposed the DISCLOSE Act so strongly. It would have forced groups to reveal many of their members and donors if they engaged in even a little bit of political speech, including members and donors that had nothing to do with the speech in question. And judging by the protests in Palm Springs, so-called campaign finance reform groups aren’t just interested in the donors to groups that speak out during campaign season, but also 501(c)(3) groups like the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation that engage in no campaign speech, just research and advocacy on public policy.

Whatever side one comes down on in the fight between Gov. Walker and the public employee unions, everyone should be able to appreciate the marvelous sight of tens of thousands of citizens making their voices heard to their government and elected officials. That, after all, is one of the main purposes of the First Amendment.

Sean Parnell