Daily Media Links 11/7

November 7, 2019   •  By Alex Baiocco   •  
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New from the Institute for Free Speech

Institute for Free Speech Adds Media Manager, Policy Analyst

The Institute for Free Speech is pleased to announce that Tiffany Donnelly has joined IFS as the Institute’s Media Manager. In this role, she will be responsible for compiling the Institute’s signature weekday Daily Media Update, overseeing the organization’s social media presence, and contributing op-eds and blog posts on free speech topics.

Alex Baiocco, who joined the Institute in 2016 and has served as Media Manager since 2018, has been promoted to Policy Analyst.

“The right to political speech is a fundamental human right. The government did not grant this freedom, and the government does not have the right to take it away. Sadly, this is news to many politicians. Not coincidentally, the biggest beneficiaries of the speech-suppressing regulations preventing ordinary citizens from participating in government are the political incumbents who champion them. I am honored to join the Institute for Free Speech in the fight to protect and defend Americans’ speech, press, assembly, and petition rights,” said Tiffany.

Prior to joining the Institute for Free Speech, Tiffany earned a B.A. in History from Brown University and a J.D. from the University of Louisville. She previously worked as a Paralegal at the ACLU’s National Office, where she managed client outreach in education-related cases across the country.

As Policy Analyst, Alex Baiocco will be responsible for developing the Institute’s policy ideas and educational resources. He will author papers to explain the organization’s position on free speech issues and educate the public, policymakers, and media. He will also contribute op-eds and blog posts on topics related to free political speech.

“In my three years at the Institute, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the numerous laws and regulations that most affect Americans’ ability to speak about government. I am excited to leverage this knowledge and experience in contributing to the Institute’s expanding body of work championing First Amendment freedoms,” said Alex.

Congress

CNET: Silicon Valley congressman: Regulate political ads on Facebook just like copyright

By Katie Collins

US Rep. Ro Khanna, whose California district includes a portion of Silicon Valley, is one of those stuck in the middle. Allowing political ads to be posted with no fact checking was “wrong,” he said speaking at a press conference at Web Summit in Lisbon on Wednesday. But he also doesn’t believe in an outright ban.

“I don’t think we should ban political ads from social media, and in the First Amendment’s idea is that political speech should be able to get to people where they are,” he said. “The question is, what is the balance? It shouldn’t be the Wild West, but it also shouldn’t be censored. Facebook needs to take steps to come up with a policy.”

Khanna, a Democrat, also has a clear idea of how such a policy could work. He suggested a system similar to the one that allows the removal of content for copyright purposes. If a complaint was lodged and upheld by an independent regulatory agency that said an ad was blatantly false, the platform would legally be required to remove it.

“I think you could have an agency under certain guidelines that requires removal of ads there are blatantly false or that are suppressing the vote, and have that adjudicated in a way that is still consistent with the First Amendment,” he said.

The Hill: McConnell says Twitter’s ban on political ads will ‘degrade democracy’

By Jordain Carney

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday argued that Twitter’s recent decision to ban all political ads meant the platform was “picking winners and losers.”

“Twitter’s leadership has tried to produce a rationale for banishing paid political speech, but the argument boils down to the same misunderstanding that has been used to undermine free speech for decades,” McConnell said from the Senate floor…

Twitter’s policy, which the company will officially unveil in mid-November, will ban ads that refer to an election or candidate, and those that “advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance,” according to the company…

“[It] would just amplify the already privileged speakers who already posses multimillion-dollar platforms. It would just help clear the field for those elites by denying the same tools to fledgling speakers who are not already famous,” McConnell said.

He added that Twitter’s policy does “not bolster our democracy. It would degrade democracy. It would amplify the advantage of media companies, celebrities and certain other established elites while denying an important tool to the Americans who disagree with them.”

Online Speech Platforms 

Politico: Facebook’s political ads controversy spreads overseas

By Alexandra S. Levine

Global gathering on disinformation: Rep. David Cicilline, speaking at a hearing in Dublin on disinformation, plans to blast Facebook for its controversial policies around political ads…

Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is leading the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust investigation into Silicon Valley, is in Dublin this morning to address one of the raft of issues raised by probing tech giants’ market power: disinformation and fake news. Cicilline is, according to his office, the only U.S. lawmaker slated to participate in a meeting of the “International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News,” a group created by European lawmakers in 2017 in response to Russia’s disinformation attacks on Western democracies using social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram…

Getting something on the books to force greater disclosures around online political ads will be a big focus, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent Mark Scott hears. Paid digital campaigning has placed Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at the center of divisive policy debates in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Cicilline intends to take on misleading political ads in particular, pushing Facebook on its policy of not fact-checking campaign ads and letting campaigns narrowly target would-be voters. He’ll also likely praise Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for dropping political ads from his platform.

Washington Times: Twitter and Facebook try to get ahead of the next round of political speech

By Adam Brandon

Mr. Zuckerberg and his sometimes-nemesis, Sen. Ted Cruz, are both seemingly in agreement about defending free speech online. You might guess it was Mr. Cruz who said that: “… political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

But in fact Mr. Zuckerberg said it just last month…

Too many in the public and the media seem to have assumed that their fellow social media consumers are mindless pawns, helplessly controlled and manipulated by the dark, sinister forces of false online ads and memes. Disinformation, they say, must be policed aggressively for the sake of our democracy.

But responding to this demand puts social media platforms in a content-moderation paradox. Many of their customers are demanding that platforms try to weed out disinformation, however that’s defined. And yet, many of those same people get angry when that moderation seems biased in any way…

As Mr. Zuckerberg appears to finally be learning, attempting to act as the arbiter of truth in political speech online is a not only a thankless task but probably a futile one. Whether Facebook or Twitter police their political content or not, politicians and users alike get angry and want to regulate them.

This is a dangerous trend, because forcing platforms to be “neutral” or placing legal guidelines on how they should police political speech would effectively let the government decide what truth is online. Nothing would be more dangerous to freedom of expression than that.

FEC

Washington Post: Kentucky sports radio host, mulling Senate run vs. McConnell, is off air after GOP complaint

By Ben Strauss

Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two Soviet-born associates of Rudolph Giuliani, are charged with funneling $325,000 in foreign money into a super-PAC supporting President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Their indictment should serve as a warning about the threat of foreign manipulation of U.S. elections. It also proves the need for a functioning Federal Election Commission.

After a resignation in August, the six-seat commission is down to only three members. The commission needs four for a quorum, and requires a quorum to authorize investigations by its office of general counsel. So FEC lawyers can work on cases previously authorized, but they can’t investigate new ones until the president nominates, and the Senate confirms, at least one new commissioner.

Trump has nominated Texas lawyer James “Trey” Trainor III …

McConnell should immediately schedule hearings on the Trainor nomination. The commission needs another Republican to restore its partisan balance as well as to form a quorum. Then, he and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer should offer Trump five qualified nominees, enabling a clean sweep of old members (all of whose terms have nominally expired) by new replacements…

In a phone interview Thursday, Jones said, “This is classic bully behavior by Mitch McConnell,” adding that he understood iHeart’s decision to remove him from the air while he deliberates about a Senate run. In regards to a potential Senate run, Jones said he would make a decision “very soon.”

McConnell’s campaign manager Kevin Golden said in a statement, “Team Mitch has absolutely no concern about Matt’s show. It appears that his business relationships are concerned with his ability to comply with federal law.”

Candidates and Campaigns 

Associated Press: AP Exclusive: Steyer aide offered money for endorsements

By Alexandra Jaffe

A top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer in Iowa privately offered campaign contributions to local politicians in exchange for endorsing his White House bid, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversations.

The overtures from Pat Murphy, a former state House speaker who is serving as a top adviser on Steyer’s Iowa campaign, aren’t illegal – though payments for endorsements would violate campaign finance laws if not disclosed. There’s no evidence that any Iowans accepted the offer or received contributions from Steyer’s campaign as compensation for their backing.

But the proposals could revive criticism that the billionaire Steyer is trying to buy his way into the White House. Several state lawmakers and political candidates said they were surprised Steyer’s campaign would think he could buy their support…

Experts say a campaign could violate campaign finance laws if they don’t disclose payments for endorsements.

“It’s legal if you disclose a payment for an endorsement on your campaign finance report,” said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who now works for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington. But, he added, “It would be unlawful if you don’t disclose it, or you disclose it but try to hide who the recipient is, or try to hide what that purpose was.”

A trio of former Ron Paul aides faced legal trouble in 2016 over similar issues during the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus campaign. Campaign chairman Jesse Benton, campaign manager John Tate and deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari were convicted in 2016 of charges related to arranging and concealing payments for then-Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who switched his support from Michele Bachmann to Paul just six days before the Iowa caucuses. Sorenson served 15 months in jail for his role in the scheme.

Lobbying

Fortune: The Lobbying Industry Is Shadowy and Full of Loopholes. Here’s What You Need to Know

By Soni Sangha

Federal ethics rules can be circumvented by a waiver, and because of this, former agricultural lobbyist Jeffrey Sands was appointed a senior agricultural adviser for the EPA…

With a waiver, Sands was well within all set within federal ethics guidelines. But creating ways to circumvent them undermines why they exist in the first place, Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s Capitol Hill lobbyist on ethics, lobbying and campaign finance rules told Fortune.

“These hires present direct conflicts of interest,” said Holman, who has filed ethics complaints against the White House and other federal agencies, alleging that 29 federal employees did not comply with the president’s executive order. “You can’t mix business with government official duties.”

Lobbyists are required to disclose who is paying them and whom they lobbied to unmask potential conflicts of interest. The problem is that lobbyists don’t always fill out the paperwork designed to bring transparency to the foreign or domestic interests they represent…

Many lobbyists don’t register due to the requirement that a registrant spends 20% of their time lobbying. Some who do the work of lobbying don’t meet that threshold…

FARA is a notoriously broad statute that some advocates say is written so vaguely that even nonprofits or journalists would need to register. But given the recent meddling of foreign interests in the U.S. political process, Trump appointee John Demers, who heads the Department of Justice’s national security division, vowed to make FARA an enforcement priority. The Department of Justice lists 12 cases of FARA violations. Eight have taken place since 2017.

“FARA enforcement is still woefully deficient,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative. “Technically, they registered but we have no idea what they are doing. It’s like transparency lite.”

The States

Wall Street Journal: Trump to Pay $2 Million in Settlement of Suit Over Foundation

By Liz Ruskin

President Trump will personally pay $2 million to an array of charities as part of a settlement of a lawsuit accusing his now-defunct foundation of abusing its nonprofit status and helping his 2016 campaign for the White House.

The ruling Thursday from State Supreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla found that an Iowa fundraiser Mr. Trump held during the 2016 presidential primary violated rules governing charities.

The decision helps resolve a lawsuit brought by the New York attorney general’s office against the president, his adult children and the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Late last year, the foundation agreed to dissolve under the supervision of a judge.

Last month, the judge’s ruling says, the attorney general and the foundation entered into several agreements, including that the foundation would distribute its remaining $1.8 million in assets.

That money, and $2 million from Mr. Trump personally, will be distributed equally to eight charities, the attorney general’s office said…

New York state Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, called the ruling and settlement a victory in her office’s efforts to protect charities. “My office will continue to fight for accountability because no one is above the law-not a businessman, not a candidate for office, and not even the President of the United States,” she said in a written statement.

New York Times: Don’t Let Party Hacks Hijack Election Reform

By Editorial Board

The long fight for public financing in New York State got a big break this year, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature put a nine-member Public Campaign Financing Commission in charge of designing the system. The commission’s recommendations are due Dec. 1. Unless the Legislature steps in, they will become law within 20 days…

Since the commission first met in August, its members, in public testimony and private correspondence, have shown a keen interest in some terrible ideas…

The commission’s members also voted last month to limit matching dollars to in-district donations, a move that could hamper challengers even as the state’s political parties – which generally back incumbents – are allowed to receive almost unlimited contributions…

The only way to make limiting matching funds work would be to set reasonable qualifying criteria. If the commission limits matching funds to in-district donations, then candidates shouldn’t be required to raise any more than $4,000 for Assembly races and $9,600 for Senate races, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The city’s system works well because it is overseen by a nonpartisan, largely independent agency with the power to fine candidates for violating campaign finance rules. That agency, known as the Campaign Finance Board, has five members appointed by the mayor and the City Council speaker. In a healthy civic tradition, mayors and local officials have filled the board with experts, not political hacks.

It is crucial that the commission create such a body at the state level to oversee public financing. If not, the program will be overseen by the partisan and dysfunctional Board of Elections.

Alaska Public Media: Judge says Alaska should crack down on unlimited contributions in state elections

By Liz Ruskin

Jason Harrow, of the group Equal Citizens, is one of the attorneys who brought the case on behalf of three Alaska voters.

“I think many Alaskans saw in the last election cycle, with respect to groups that were supporting Gov. Dunleavy from out of state and things like that, that these independent groups can be very similar and very closely aligned with the campaigns … and because they’re technically independent, there’s no limits that apply,” Harrow said. “And that’s what we were targeting.”

Judge William Morse says the Alaska Public Offices Commission should reinstate the $500 annual per-person contribution limit to independent groups, or Political Action Committees, that’s in state law. APOC stopped enforcing it following a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Harrow says APOC went too far in its interpretation.

“Well, the key point is that it wasn’t quite Citizens United that led to the opening of the floodgates,” Harrow said.

Harrow expects the case will be reviewed by the state Supreme Court, and then he hopes to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court, to curb unlimited money in politics.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Law says the department believes the court’s order is mistaken. The department has filed a petition for rehearing.

Raleigh News & Observer: Complaint says top North Carolina Republican is taking donors’ money for personal gain

By Will Doran

A longtime good-government advocate is accusing North Carolina’s Republican Senate leader, Phil Berger, of improperly using his campaign donors’ money to buy a house in Raleigh.

Bob Hall, who led the group Democracy NC before retiring, held a news conference outside Berger’s home near downtown Raleigh Wednesday morning…

However, Berger’s campaign staff told The News & Observer that the elections board has already signed off on the arrangement – not once, but twice, under political leaders from both parties…

Hall said there’s no problem, according to state elections officials, with lawmakers using their campaign money to pay for rent. But Berger is paying a mortgage, Hall said, which complicates matters…

A News & Observer examination of campaign finance records in 2018 found numerous lawmakers from various parts of the state using their donors’ money to pay for expenses like rent and parking in downtown Raleigh, or homeowners’ association fees in suburban Raleigh neighborhoods.

But Hall said he examined years of campaign finance reports and could find only one other example of a lawmaker using campaign cash to buy property – Berger’s leadership counterpart in the N.C. House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Tim Moore.

Alex Baiocco

Alex Baiocco