Responding to Obama on DISCLOSE

August 23, 2010   •  By Sean Parnell
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This Saturday’s weekly Presidential radio address was devoted to resurrecting the DISCLOSE Act, the bill designed to stifle free speech rights recognized by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.

Reviewing the transcript of his comments, I had a few thoughts:

1. Most noticeable for its absence was any mention of unions. President Obama refers to corporations no fewer than 9 times in his comments, plus the insurance and banking industries. But there’s not one mention of unions, even though Citizens United freed them to speak on behalf of their members, a freedom they have embraced with gusto (and it’s not like the White House is unfamiliar with this spending). Given the claims by DISCLOSE Act supporters that this bill treats unions and corporations identically, President Obama’s focus only on corporations is yet more evidence that the DISCLOSE Act is specifically designed to stifle corporate political speech while leaving unions free to speak.

2. The White House is still peddling xenophobia, referring to the alleged danger that “foreigners” might influence elections. This despite the fact that current federal law and FEC regulations make it explicitly illegal for foreign citizens or entities to be involved in U.S. elections.

3. President Obama refers only to the intrusive disclosure elements of the DISCLOSE Act, except for one brief statement that the bill would restrict “foreign-controlled corporations and entities…  from spending money to influence American elections.” Absent was any mention of the total prohibitions on political speech by thousands of U.S. companies that have government contractors contained within DISCLOSE, a prohibition that would silence many of the largest businesses in the country while leaving unions free to spend.

On a final note, I am increasingly alarmed by statements along the lines of this uttered by the President: “The only people who don’t want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide,” which I’ve heard several times in connection with the DISCLOSE Act and disclosure in general.

Is it just me, or does this sound like something out of one of those dystopian tales of the future, like 1984, where “Big Brother” spies on the activities of its citizens? Or where the Speaker of the House can instigate an investigation of those Americans who disagree with her? (Oh wait, that last one is real – or at least she wishes it were)

Among the many protections of the First Amendment are the right to affiliate, coordinate, consult, and speak freely with fellow citizens that share your perspectives, priorities, and interests WITHOUT having the government investigate you or peer over your shoulders while keeping tabs on your activities. The chilling effect were it otherwise would simply eradicate free political speech, because the cost of speaking freely would be too high.

Imagine a campaign, for example, being required to reveal their inner discussions of strategy, issues, messaging, and other political matters. No campaign could operate effectively if every e-mail, memo, conversation, and other communication amongst staff, candidate, and supporters had to be disclosed.

Sadly, these are exactly the sort of protections for free speech that President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and others seem intent on stripping away with their demands for greater and more intrusive disclosure and transparency justified by the notion that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Sean Parnell

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