Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s support for Senate Joint Resolution 19 (S.J. Res. 19) is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the gentleman’s action against free speech in America. That Resolution proposed a Constitutional Amendment to specify limits to contributions to the electoral process by individuals made through non-profit organizations. Happily S.J Res. 19 could not come close to making the Cloture Vote needed to even have it debated in the upper chamber. The entire effort on Mr. Whitehouse’s part is instructive, however, regarding the energy he’s willing to expend to limit the free speech of those he regards as wrong.
In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in NAACP v. Alabama that the civil rights group could protect the privacy of its donors in order to shield them from harm. That same protection extends today to 501(c)3 charities and 501(c)4 social welfare organizations. In 2010, the Court further clarified the linkage between money and speech in its Citizen’s United ruling. In that case, clarification was made that corporations or unions faced no limits on the size of the expenditures they could make to influence the populace on who to vote for or against in an election, so long as there was no coordination with campaigns.
Allowing Americans to contribute privately to nonprofit organizations preserves their ability to make an impact and engage in dialogue without having to fear for themselves or their families. This is an assurance needed today more than ever. Examples of people who speak out on controversial issues and have their livelihoods or even their lives threatened abound these days. If Senator Whitehouse had his way and was able to force nonprofit donor disclosure, it would mean the names and addresses of donors to groups like Planned Parenthood, the NRA, and others would end up on government lists for anyone to access.
Senator Whitehouse’s much publicized letter to the IRS commissioner led some in the nation’s capital to allege that he is among the primary culprits who prompted that agency to target conservative organizations in 2012. In fact, one of his co-conspirators, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went so far as to make his goal clear that “targeted speakers ‘think twice’ before speaking out.”
More recently, Senator Whitehouse advocated using RICO laws to prosecute those who disagree with him on the threat posed by global warming. RICO laws were originally passed to combat Mafia groups, the kind that called Providence home for decades. They are acts with which a former Rhode Island attorney general should be well acquainted. Bending these criminal enterprise statutes to meet the needs of silencing his opponents in the global warming debate is questionable at best.
In fact, just last week one of Whitehouse’s allies, current RI Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, was sued for documents his office refused to release that pertain to a national organization of up to 25 AGs who are colluding to harass the free speech of opponents to the climate change agenda by subjecting them to coordinated investigation. That elected officials would use their access to law enforcement process to abridge Constitutional rights this way should shock everyone into recognizing the magnitude of this creeping problem. Reasonable people can disagree on an issue, but it should be universally accepted that all sides have a right to speak.
Unfortunately, Senator Whitehouse is apparently afraid to engage in a debate free of intimidation and personal attacks. After all, he could lose that debate – so better to not have it at all, right?
Members of the Senate swear an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. That’s specified in Article VI of the founding document of the Republic. Senator Whitehouse’s attacks on free speech are an embarrassment for a state that was founded on “liberty of conscience” by an outspoken dissenter who escaped here because he was accused of spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous ideas” — ideas that would become some of the founding principles of this republic. Those attacks may also violate his oath. Roger Williams would be ashamed to see the state he founded represented by someone so viciously opposed to open debate as Sheldon Whitehouse.
Senator Whitehouse should drop the petty politics and attacks on freedom of speech. He should focus, instead, on doing something productive for the anemic economy of his state and nation. Reducing unneeded regulations that induce business overhead and cutting the cost of government to reduce tax burdens are far more lofty goals than conducting witch hunts as a substitute for open debate and public discourse.
Mark Zaccaria is small business owner, a former elected official, an activist for the rights of individuals here in Rhode Island, and a Republican candidate for General Assembly in House district 32.