My nonprofit grass roots advocacy organization recently won a huge free speech victory in a Nevada Supreme Court case, but the work of defending our First Amendment rights against government infringement marches on.
Back in 2010, Citizen Outreach sent out a pair of issue-based mailers detailing that former Assemblyman John Oceguera was “double-dipping” as a government employee and wasting a lot of the taxpayers’ time pursuing frivolous legislation. The mailers encouraged citizens to “tell John Oceguera” to, essentially, change his evil ways.
Former Secretary of State Ross Miller sued us, claiming we were obligated to report to the government the names of every donor to our organization even though the Internal Revenue Service clearly says we are allowed to protect our contributors from such government fishing expeditions.
District Court Judge James Russell summarily ruled against us even though we never expressly called for Oceguera’s defeat. Judge Russell ruled that the only way to “tell” the assemblyman to knock it off was to vote against him.
Clearly untrue. Citizens could have talked to Oceguera about any or all of the issues we raised by calling him, emailing him, faxing him, sending him a letter or even talking to him at the grocery store or at a town hall meeting.
So we appealed Russell’s decision. And the Supreme Court overturned it.
However, the decision in our favor was a narrow victory. You see, in 2010 when we sent out our mailers, Nevada law was unclear about exactly what constituted “express advocacy” for the defeat of a candidate that would trigger donor disclosure. It was so unclear that Miller went to the Nevada Legislature in 2011 and had state law changed to clear the confusion.
As such, the Supreme Court ruled that Miller couldn’t hold us to a definition of “express advocacy” that wasn’t in state law when our mailers were mailed.
So although we won, there’s still a huge problem in that Nevada law now has a new, very liberal definition of “express advocacy” that poses a serious infringement on free speech. That law needs to be changed or repealed outright.
Although some people ardently advocate the virtues of public disclosure of donor identities in the interest of “transparency,” they overlook the very real dangers that donors risk, especially conservative donors, by being disclosed publicly in the form of blacklists, threats, harassment, humiliation and retaliation.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in 2010, “I cannot endorse a view of the First Amendment that subjects citizens of this Nation to death threats, ruined careers, damaged or defaced property, or pre-emptive and threatening warning letters as the price for engaging in core political speech.”
Thomas is absolutely correct.
Chuck Muth is president of Citizen Outreach, a conservative grass roots advocacy organization. He can be reached at www.muthstruths.com.