Politicians once again prioritize silencing those who disagree with them
© Greg Nash

Exactly at the moment members of Congress should be focused on working with each other to solve the biggest problems, they find that it’s much easier instead to focus on silencing you.

As it did in 2019, the House of Representatives is giving priority consideration to a bill that would make it harder for ordinary Americans to speak out on the issues that matter most to them.

The latest version of the improperly named “For the People Act” purports to protect democracy and enhance transparency. It would do the opposite: protect incumbent politicians and suppress speech.

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Our country benefits when we have a diversity of voices participating in public life. Each American should be able to amplify their individual voice alongside like-minded fellow citizens. H.R. 1 would make this harder to do by, among other things:

  • Regulating more ways people can communicate about issues, forcing groups that engage in nonpartisan issue advocacy to, often falsely, declare that they support or oppose any candidate whose name appears in their materials.
  • Compelling nonprofits that then make “campaign-related disbursements” of the above kind to disclose the names and addresses of donors who donate above a certain threshold, subjecting them to potential retaliation from those who would harass them, an all too real possibility in today’s partisan climate.
  • Requiring nonprofits to disclose their own donors, even if those donors would normally have been kept anonymous, if an organization they give money to spends dollars on the redefined “campaign-related disbursements” above a certain amount. This would make it much harder for burgeoning social entrepreneurs to find the funding and partnerships to grow. It also falsely implies that those donors funded a particular ad or issue.

These proposals would deepen divisions in the body politic that have stymied our ability to solve big problems.

They would exacerbate the problems in our civic life by closing off even further what many people already see as a rigged system in which politicians and special interests team up at the expense of everyone else.

We need a more vibrant civil society, not a stifled one.

Just as Americans have the right to cast ballots in private, we have the right to support causes, join groups, and make donations without being monitored by the government. History shows that the choice to engage privately — free from the gaze of those in power — helps protect all voices, especially the marginalized.

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The 1958 landmark Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama barred the state’s attorney general from demanding the civil rights organization hand over its list of supporters. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what state officials would have done with that list.

The single largest givers to LGBTQ causes between 1970 and 2010 were “anonymous funders.” Does anyone doubt that the cause would have grown as it did if its funders were not allowed anonymity?

Gigi Brienza donated to John Edwards’ presidential campaign, yet found herself and her address on a “target list” from an animal rights-oriented domestic terror organization thanks to donor disclosure requirements.

Margie Christoffersen donated money to oppose a ballot initiative in California. Her restaurant was boycotted, she was harassed, and police in riot gear had to be called to disperse a mob assembled outside her business.

How one feels about the causes espoused by any of these Americans is not the point. Their causes span the range of public debates. But the principle is the same. Whatever cause you support, you should be able to do it free of the prying eyes of politicians and bureaucrats, and without the threat of intimidation.

The ability to choose how, when, or even if to share your beliefs is especially critical in the age of digital mobs.

Members of Congress and other public officials have an obligation to ensure that everyone can exercise their rights. Foundational freedoms erode when we protect them for one set of people but not another. Our rights are bound together. If we protect them for me but not for thee, we risk forfeiting the robust liberties that are the foundation of the American experiment.

Congress should not rewrite the rules of engagement in a way that chills free speech. Americans must be free to speak and associate freely, without politicians holding a veto on who gets to participate and who does not. Accountability is for politicians, transparency is for government, and privacy is for people.

Ted Ellis is director of coalitions at Americans for Prosperity.