by Mark Fitzgibbons
Editor's note: trashing the First Amendment rights of groups like GOA in 2002 with the infamous McCain-Feingold law -- better known as the Incumbent Protection Act -- wasn't enough for Sen. McCain. He's back for more in 2006 with S. 2128, the Gag Act.
Proposed regulation of the grassroots, such as Section 110 of S. 2128 (the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act), with similar provisions in counterpart bills before the House of Representatives, would harm America.
Not only does such regulation abridge freedom of speech, of the press, the right of the people to peaceably assemble, to petition the Government for redress of grievances, and to exercise our respective faiths, but such regulation would actually protect the corruptive influences that these lobbying and ethics reform bills are purportedly intended to fix.
Through the grassroots, citizens across the country assemble peaceably, though perhaps not always politely, on political and social matters of importance to them. The problems Congress purports to cure through its recent efforts are the quid pro quo of legislation for gifts or other "consideration." Whatever the problems inside the Beltway, none of those problems can be blamed on too much citizen participation in public policy matters. Any efforts to regulate the grassroots, therefore, are misplaced.
The grassroots, of course, are the People. They are whom Justice William Brennan called "citizen-critic[s] of government." More than merely critics of government, the grassroots are populist means of criticizing corporations, even entire industries. They are critics of the institutional, mainstream media as well as critics of the new and alternative media. Grassroots organizations are critics even of other grassroots organizations.
S. 2128 would require registration and reporting of "paid" efforts to "stimulate" the grassroots. Section 110 of the bill defines these as efforts "to influence the general public... to contact one or more... legislative or executive branch officials (or Congress as a whole) to urge such officials... to take specific action" on matters of public policy. "Attempts to influence" 500 or more citizens by any person or entity receiving or spending $25,000 or more in any quarter trigger these grassroots lobbying registration and reporting requirements.
The thresholds triggering registration and reporting may be met by the placement of just one media ad or just the postage for one direct mail letter mailed nationally. It is not merely that these thresholds are low; they are unconstitutional. These provisions directly violate the "constitutional rights" identified in 2 U.S.C. 1607(a) of the underlying lobbying registration statute that S. 2128 amends (not that constitutional rights need statutory recitation of the fact that they exist). What possibly could have made these constitutional rights fall out of favor since 1995, when the Disclosure of Lobbying Activities bill was first passed?
The registration requirements are a prior restraint on the exercise of First Amendment rights, and the reporting requirements are burdens on such rights, with civil and even criminal sanctions in some of the legislative proposals for failure to register and report. Registration is a prior restraint because failure to register within a set period of agreeing to engage in such rights sets off penalties. Speech and press rights must therefore obtain government clearance in advance of communications being issued.
James Madison, in describing the distinction between the American version of a free printing press versus the British version, said that
a law inflicting penalties on printed publications would have a similar effect with a law authorizing a previous restraint on them. It would seem a mockery to say that no laws should be passed preventing publications from being made, but that laws may be passed for punishing them in case they should be made.
Section 110 of S. 2128 is a prior restraint. Section 106 of the bill amending 2 U.S.C. 1606 would create substantial penalties for that to which all Americans have guaranteed and constitutionally protected rights "paramount to laws," as Madison said.
Such regulation would stifle speech, but more so, it would effectively censor small, start-up and unpopular causes already strapped for cash. These bills would treat small and unpopular citizen causes the same as large corporations hiring high-priced K Street lobbyists, and would penalize or completely shut out some of the most valuable means of citizens protecting their own freedoms.
It is well-settled law that paid efforts to engage in First Amendment rights merit no fewer constitutional protections than unpaid volunteer efforts. Journalists who receive paychecks are no less protected than unpaid bloggers.
The paid ads of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King "communicated information, expressed opinion, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought financial support on behalf of a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of the highest public interest and concern." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 266 (1964). Such "editorial advertisements," of course cost money to prepare, to place, to print and to disseminate. They are "the promulgation of information and ideas by persons who do not themselves have access to publishing facilities -- who wish to exercise their freedom of speech even though they are not members of the press." Id.
There are many other examples, too long to list in this letter, of why "paid" efforts to engage in protected First Amendment activity are not only as protected constitutionally, but are as important and as valuable as unpaid efforts. For example, paid efforts to circulate petitions are "core political speech" subject to the "zenith" of First Amendment protections. See, Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414, 421–422 (1988). The bottom line is that First Amendment protections of speech, the printing press, petitioning and association rights are not lost merely because it costs money to communicate in today's world of mass media.
Regulating "paid" efforts to stimulate grassroots activity merely gives the appearance that Members of Congress and their respective Republican and Democratic Party committees would prefer for their own professional political consultants to have a leg up in the marketplace of ideas and donations. Members of Congress may already send communications at taxpayer expense under their "free" franking privileges, and as 535 of the most important people in the country, easily have more access to express their views for free through the mainstream media.
Costs of compliance with quarterly reporting requirements will effectively reduce the ability of marginal grassroots efforts to communicate, and will silence cash-strapped unpopular causes. Corporations and large, established causes that are already wealthy will be able to comply. Thus, your bills would effectively silence some critics and allow the wealthier ones to communicate. Such censorship through regulation merely protects the corruptive influences inside the Beltway.
Since the apparent ethics issues are the quid pro quo, it seems that a better solution, and certainly one without constitutional prohibitions, would be to require Members of Congress who sponsor legislation or amendments to sign, under penalties of perjury, that such legislation is submitted without gifts or promises of some consideration.
The expansion of the grassroots these past 40 years has empowered Americans, and that is a good thing. The grassroots are the very antithesis of corruptive influences inside the Beltway. Whatever the solution to the complex problems of congressional ethics, a vote to regulate the grassroots would be the equivalent of a vote to protect the corruptive influences.