Daily Media Links 3/17

March 17, 2020   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •  
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Supreme Court

National ReviewSupreme Court Announces Closure over Coronavirus Fears, First Since 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak

By Tobias Hoonhout

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will postpone oral arguments for its March session in response to coronavirus, the High Court’s first closure in over 100 years since the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak.

“The Court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances,” it said in a statement. The Court added that is regularly-scheduled private conference this coming Friday and its order list next Monday will occur, but added that “some Justices may participate by telephone.” Six of the Justices are 65-years-old or older, while both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are in their 80s.

SCOTUSblog: Tuesday round-up

By Edith Roberts

In an op-ed for The Hill, Ethan Blevins urges the court to review Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington, a First Amendment challenge to “Seattle’s ‘democracy vouchers’ campaign finance scheme,” and “answer important questions about government power to force taxpayers to sponsor ideas they oppose.”

The Courts

Washington PostJustice Dept. abandons prosecution of Russian firm indicted in Mueller election interference probe

By Spencer S. Hsu

The Justice Department on Monday dropped its two-year-long prosecution of a Russian company charged with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by orchestrating a social media campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

The stunning reversal came a few weeks before the case – a spinoff of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe – was set to go to trial.

Assistants to U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea of Washington and Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers cited an unspecified “change in the balance of the government’s proof due to a classification determination,” according to a nine-page filing accompanied by facts under seal…

“Upon careful consideration of all of the circumstances, and particularly in light of recent events…the government has concluded that further proceedings as to Concord…promotes neither the interests of justice nor the nation’s security,” federal prosecutors wrote.

The after-business-hours government request to dismiss – granted by U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich – brings an abrupt end to a case that was set to go to trial April 6.

Bloomberg Law: California Defends Classification Law From Voter-Data Collectors

By Kathleen Dailey

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) asked a federal court to toss a lawsuit filed by a group of voter signature collectors and voter data-processing firms that say the state’s new worker classification law will negatively impact their independent contractor status and thereby unlawfully restrict political speech.

Although gathering signatures for state ballot initiatives and referendums involves “core political speech,” AB 5 doesn’t prevent or limit that activity, or even contemplate doing so, the state argues in a motion filed March 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

The Center Square: Alaska workers sue state, union over alleged Janus violation

By Bethany Blankley

Two state employees filed a federal lawsuit against the Alaska State Employees Association/AFSCME Local 52 and Kelly Tshibaka, in her official capacity as Commissioner of Administration for the state of Alaska, alleging they violated the provisions established by the Supreme Court Janus v. AFSCME ruling.

The plaintiffs, Linda Creed and Tyler Riberio, who say they are being forced to pay union dues against their will, are being represented by the Alaska Policy Forum and the Liberty Justice Center, the nonprofit law firm representing Janus in the landmark 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case…

The lawsuit, Creed et al., v. ASEA et al. was filed on March 12 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.

Law.com: Responding to Free Speech Lawsuits, Judge Strikes Down New Jersey Donor Disclosure Law

By Charles Toutant

New Jersey has been permanently enjoined from enforcing a law enacted to shed light on dark money campaign contributions.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti signed orders converting a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the dark money law into a final judgment. The orders were signed in a pair of First Amendment suits, one brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the national ACLU, and another by a social welfare organization called Illinois Opportunity Project.

Wednesday’s orders bar enforcement actions against any independent expenditure committee for noncompliance with the act. The orders do not prevent legislators or the Election Law Enforcement Commission from enacting and enforcing future legislation on the subject of dark money.

“This court order halts the enforcement of a law that hindered the freedom of assembly, hampered the right to petition government, and compromised privacy rights,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said in a statement. “All nonprofits should be able to communicate about issues of public concern without fear of being subject to invasive disclosure rules.” …

The New Jersey law required certain groups that raise or spend money for issue advocacy to identify their donors. But the suits said the New Jersey law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and unfairly targeted social welfare organizations while exempting labor unions and business groups.

Independent Groups

The FulcrumGroup helps channel millions for democracy reform efforts

By Geoff West

Business leaders have committed nearly $6 million in funding for political reform groups since last year, through the help of an organization that engages the business community on the structural threats to democracy.

The funding was committed by members of the Leadership Now Project, an organization comprised largely of business leaders that helps channel strategic investment in the political reform space.

Last year, Leadership Now began analyzing the policies and practices of nearly 200 political reform groups to provide the business community and potential donors with a sense of which organizations offered a particularly high return on investment for democracy.

Twenty groups emerged including the Center for Responsive Politics, which received $400,000 in funding from Leadership Now members to assist its tracking of money in politics, the group announced in November.

Online Speech Platforms

The Intercept: Invisible Censorship

By Sam Biddle, Paulo Victor Ribeiro, Tatiana Dias

The makers of TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app with hundreds of millions of users around the world, instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform, according to internal documents obtained by The Intercept. These same documents show moderators were also told to censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed “national honor” or broadcast streams about “state organs such as police” with bans from the platform.

These previously unreported Chinese policy documents, along with conversations with multiple sources directly familiar with TikTok’s censorship activities, provide new details about the company’s efforts to enforce rigid constraints across its reported 800 million or so monthly users while it simultaneously attempts to bolster its image as a global paragon of self-expression and anything-goes creativity. They also show how TikTok controls content on its platform to achieve rapid growth in the mold of a Silicon Valley startup while simultaneously discouraging political dissent with the sort of heavy hand regularly seen in its home country of China.

New York Times: When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President

By Ben Smith

After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.

The question, which I put to Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, in an interview Thursday, is why it took a global health crisis for them to do so.

Mr. Zuckerberg said the difference between good and bad information is clearer in a medical crisis than in the world of, say, politics.

“When you’re dealing with a pandemic, a lot of the stuff we’re seeing just crossed the threshold,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “So it’s easier to set policies that are a little more black and white and take a much harder line.”

New York Times: Can Russia Use the Coronavirus to Sow Discord Among Americans?

By Thomas Rid

Close observers of Russian disinformation tactics in electoral interference have two big questions as the 2020 election approaches: How large is the appetite for escalation among Russian intelligence agencies this time around? And where was, and is, S.V.R., Russia’s counterpart to the C.I.A.? …

At stake is what kind of election interference we should expect as November is coming: a lackluster rerun of leaking and trolling and fake social media activity, which would most likely be harder to do and less effective than in 2016 – or more pernicious operational innovation and escalation, perhaps even tactics that take advantage of the coronavirus outbreak.

American intelligence officials reportedly reached a preliminary conclusion last week, and that answer points to escalation – as well as to S.V.R. Russian intelligence operatives, according to reports on the United States intelligence assessment, are working to support and amplify white supremacist groups in order to try to incite violence.

Candidates and Campaigns

New York Times: Biden vs. Sanders, Issue by Issue

By Matt Stevens and Maggie Astor

[Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.] is calling for a constitutional amendment to make elections completely publicly funded, eliminating all private contributions – a significant step beyond what Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed. In the shorter term, he wants to put new restrictions on super PACs and publicly finance major parties’ national conventions.

Like most Democrats, Mr. Sanders wants to overturn Citizens United – the Supreme Court decision that prevents the government from banning political spending by corporations in elections – and then pass a constitutional amendment that makes clear that money is not speech. He also wants to abolish super PACs and has called for a ban on corporate contributions to the Democratic National Convention.
He has criticized Mr. Biden for accepting campaign contributions from billionaires.

Washington Free Beacon: Sanders and Biden Falsely Claim They Are Not Supported by Super PACs

By Joe Schoffstall

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and former vice president Joe Biden both falsely claimed during Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate that they are not receiving help from super PACs and outside groups…

But both candidates are receiving help from super PACs and outside groups.

Biden referred to nine progressive activist groups backing Sanders: Center for Popular Democracy Action, Democratic Socialists of America, Dream Defenders, Make the Road, Our Revolution, People’s Action, Student Action, Progressive Democrats of America, and the Sunrise Movement.

These groups are not super PACs. They are 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofits…

One of those groups, Our Revolution, was founded by Sanders and former aides. It is now working to increase voter turnout for his campaign. Due to its work supporting his candidacy, the group was hit with an FEC complaint alleging it has violated campaign finance laws by accepting contributions that surpass the federal limit.

Sanders is also receiving help from super PACs…

Biden is backed by Unite the Country, a super PAC founded by Democratic operatives Matt Tompkins and Mark Riddle, which has spent $10 million backing his candidacy. The pair also founded Future Majority, a dark money group that will spend $60 million primarily in the Midwest region for the 2020 elections.

The States

New York Daily NewsCommission impossible: A judge upends the recommendations of a misbegotten state campaign finance panel

By Daily News Editorial Board

We often disagree with New York State’s left-wing Working Families Party and right-wing Conservative Party, and they rarely agree with each other. But we’re thankful to both of them for taking to court and knocking down a campaign finance regime imposed by an appointed panel.

Congratulations to WFP lawyer Richard Brodsky and Conservative Party lawyer William Savino for convincing Niagara County state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello that the Public Campaign Financing and Election Commission is a dead letter, along with all of its binding recommendations that became law in December.

The panel’s decree endangered minor parties’ ability to participate in politics through fusion voting and retained the nation’s weakest and most porous campaign financing laws while postponing any reform for years.

Boniello would have none of it, writing, as we predicted in November, that the law was an “improper and unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the Commission.” …

Attorney General Tish James was obligated to defend the law, but she is not under any obligation to appeal its demise. She should not. And Gov. Cuomo should refrain from putting any of the lousy provisions into the state budget.

And let’s have no more commissions writing new laws. That’s the Legislature’s job.

WGME: Maine ethics watchdog votes to investigate anti-CMP corridor group

By Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News

Maine’s campaign finance watchdog voted on Tuesday to investigate whether a dark-money group opposing Central Maine Power’s corridor proposal qualifies as a political committee, saying it needed to better understand the group’s activities.

At issue was whether Stop the Corridor, a limited-liability company that does not have to disclose its donors, had shifted its “major purpose” by assisting an anti-corridor political action committee in signature gathering after advertising against the project for months…

If required to register as a political action committee, Stop the Corridor would have to disclose donors. 

Washington Post: The new Virginia looks a lot like the old Virginia when it comes to energy laws

By Stephen D. Haner

Doing what it has always done, deferring to campaign donors, the Virginia General Assembly is about to give us what we always get: a major revision to the commonwealth’s energy economy that again puts consumers last.

It was easy to predict. Last June, I recommended three steps Virginia should take before tackling additional changes to its energy laws. Fixing the process first would involve capping campaign contributions, developing a stronger advocacy voice for consumers in front of legislators and dumping a legislative joint study commission that had proved subservient to the electric utilities…

The proposed campaign finance reforms failed. One bill seeking to prevent donations from regulated public service corporations never even made it onto a committee meeting docket in the House of Delegates. At least the state Senate voted openly to kill state Sen. Chap Petersen’s (D-Fairfax City) campaign finance bills…

There was no effort this session to take the consumer protection function from the elected attorney general who relies on the same donors…

The money that flowed from within and outside Virginia in the most recent election cycle was unprecedented, and big money has the impact donors desire…

With consumers all but voiceless, unlimited donations continuing from various energy interests, the key regulator neutered and the legislature showing no interest in real discussion between sessions, the new Virginia looks much like the old one.

Tiffany Donnelly

Tiffany Donnelly