This piece originally appeared in The Buffalo News on November 9, 2022.
A new report says New York restricts more speech about government than any other state in the nation. The Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes and defends First Amendment rights, ranked the Empire State dead last in freedom of political speech with a score of just 15%.
A labyrinth of complex laws is to blame for New York’s failing grade, the report explains. The state tramples on First Amendment rights at practically every turn, allowing government officials to avoid full accountability from citizens and watchdog groups.
That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.
The state’s campaign finance laws are so extensive and complicated that groups are forced to hire specialized attorneys before speaking about public policy – not just elections. Groups that cannot afford this expense—typically smaller nonprofits and grassroots organizations—may choose self-censorship. In this way, the law advantages entrenched interests.
Another reason for New York’s abysmal ranking is its harsh regulation of small-dollar political advocacy. If a group spends as little as one dollar on political ads in a state race, the law requires them to register and report with the state. It’s absurd that such a low threshold triggers bureaucratic burdens on Americans who want to speak. To add insult to injury, such groups can end up spending far more to keep up with the state’s complex filing requirements than they actually bring in for advocacy.
That’s how it goes in New York: free speech comes with at a hefty price.
New York also requires groups to publicly expose the names and addresses of their supporters, including members who contribute more than $2,500 over the lifetime of the organization, if that group engages in grassroots advocacy. Keep in mind, this is advocacy for or against policies and bills – these regulations are entirely separate from those affecting political campaigns.
That means even if you give small, general donations to an organization over the course of a decade, your privacy may be violated. Government officials, internet bullies, or even prospective employers can freely monitor what groups you support.
How is that anyone’s business? Such exposure online, forever, will chill speech of those who dissent from current policies.
New Yorkers have a First Amendment right to talk about policy issues and legislation without fear of reprisal or harassment for their views. Protections for political speech, particularly for advocates of unpopular or dissenting opinions, should be celebrated by legislators as a cornerstone of democracy.
But in Albany, they’re not. The state seeks a top-down “democracy”, where government directs the debate. That threatens real democracy, progress, and freedom.
Lawmakers should clarify and simplify laws to support New Yorkers’ free speech and privacy. The report lays out how the state can improve. Politicians in Albany should read it, then act to protect free speech.