It’s become a common theme on this blog – why the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board’s unilateral attempt to seize regulation of political speech during campaigns is an affront to the First Amendment. Their goal is to regulate advertisements during election time by forcing third-party groups to disclose their donors – whether these donors actually knew their money was going to be used for these ads or not. In any event, most people likely think more disclosure is a good thing – why wouldn’t we want to know who is paying for these ads?
Well, here’s why. Even as distasteful as many of these TV and print ads are, these groups have First Amendment rights, too. Anonymous political speech has been a cornerstone of our system since our nation’s founding. The Federalist Papers were written anonymously. We vote anonymously. Allowing people to speak their mind without fear of retribution encourages the “marketplace of ideas” of which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was so fond. Outing the identity of people with unpopular political opinions only serves as prior restraint on political speech.
While this all sounds wonderful in theory, we have a recent case that exposes what problems these transparency laws cause. This weekend, the New York Times began to notice what is happening to people in California that contributed to pro-Proposition 8 causes:
FOR the backers of Proposition 8, the state ballot measure to stop single-sex couples from marrying in California, victory has been soured by the ugly specter of intimidation.
A Web site takes names and ZIP codes of donors supporting the measure and overlays data on a map.
Some donors to groups supporting the measure have received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance, and their businesses have been boycotted.
The targets of this harassment blame a controversial and provocative Web site, eightmaps.com.
The site takes the names and ZIP codes of people who donated to the ballot measure – information that California collects and makes public under state campaign finance disclosure laws – and overlays the data on a Google map.
Visitors can see markers indicating a contributor’s name, approximate location, amount donated and, if the donor listed it, employer. That is often enough information for interested parties to find the rest – like an e-mail or home address. The identity of the site’s creators, meanwhile, is unknown; they have maintained their anonymity.
Eightmaps.com is the latest, most striking example of how information collected through disclosure laws intended to increase the transparency of the political process, magnified by the powerful lens of the Web, may be undermining the same democratic values that the regulations were to promote.
Joseph Clare, a San Francisco accountant who donated $500 to supporters of Proposition 8, said he had received several e-mail messages accusing him of “donating to hate.” Mr. Clare said the site perverts the meaning of disclosure laws that were originally intended to expose large corporate donors who might be seeking to influence big state projects.
“I don’t think the law was designed to identify people for direct feedback to them from others on the other side,” Mr. Clare said. “I think it’s been misused.”
Many civil liberties advocates, including those who disagree with his views on marriage, say he has a point. They wonder if open-government rules intended to protect political influence of the individual voter, combined with the power of the Internet, might be having the opposite effect on citizens.
“These are very small donations given by individuals, and now they are subject to harassment that ultimately makes them less able to engage in democratic decision making,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California.
Imagine if people who gave to anti-Proposition 8 causes were being harassed in such a way. The pro-Prop 8 people would be hung in effigy.
But whether you gave 5 bucks or $500 to either cause, your privacy should be protected. Subjecting people to this type of intimidation only ensures that none of them will ever take part in the political process again. As such, the public debate forum will be closed for business, which only opens the door for even shadier characters to hijack the election process.