The national media has unleashed its fury against Karl Rove for sharing his frustration over left–wing efforts to intimidate conservative donors and activists. As of late, certain state treasurers have begun to cobble together a plan that would force some groups to give up their privacy and tell all about their political spending. The plan is to require that corporations must meet state treasurers’ demands before being able to invest any of that state’s pension funds. Talk about leverage of the leviathan.
The uproar around Rove centers on his comments about what the Constitution has to say about these efforts. Rove correctly stated, “We’ve seen this before” – referencing the push by southern attorneys general in the 1950s to make NAACP membership lists public so as to intimidate people from joining or donating. Some in the legal mainstream call that analogy absurd because “African Americans, Jews and sympathetic Christians were literally losing their livelihoods, losing their homes, losing their jobs, and losing their lives because of their participation in the civil rights movement.” They assert that because no one is “being blown up in the middle of the night,” somehow conservative groups would not be injured by disclosure. Not so.
As a first principle, citizens should not have to demonstrate broken bones, blown up homes, and loss of life just to protect their constitutional rights. What happened in the south proves a horrible reminder of this – for any American. It simply doesn’t matter if you find yourself in a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires or if you are a street protester with the NAACP. You still count under the Constitution.
Under existing precedent, including NAACP v. Alabama and Brown v. Socialist Workers’ 74, citizens must show verifiable bloodied noses before having their rights to political anonymity protected. Sadly, these same protections haven’t been extended to instances where conservative groups fought for a traditional definition of marriage and risked their lives and livelihoods to do so. But why would we demand that a person must first sacrifice his life just to demonstrate his constitutional rights are somehow worthwhile?
There’s more to the rub about political intimidation. Today’s political environment isn’t exactly one where business leaders feel safe joining with or contributing to political efforts. Steve Wynn, CEO of Wynn Resorts, explained he’s “afraid to do anything in the current political environment in the United States.” Both Wynn and his customers say they are “frightened of this administration.” Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson Guitars, whose plants were raided by the Department of Justice due to suspicious Indian wood, who reasons that the “Obama Justice Department wants us to just shut our doors and go away.” More examples abound: the Boeing debacle and the all out assault on the Koch brothers to name a few.
In the midst of one of the most competitive recent electoral seasons, we would do well to step back from the public controversy and ask what really matters. What John Adams wrote in 1765 in his Dissertation on the Cannon and the Federal Law seems particularly appropriate today:
Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, an indisputable, divine right, to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge. I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers. . . . Be not intimidated, therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice.
Adams’ brave instruction, “Be not intimidated,” carries equal strength today. Because the right of free speech and association acts as a guardian for every other right, we must exercise special vigor in protecting it today for paupers and billionaires alike.