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Wyoming Promise to Gather Signatures for Censorship

A group called Wyoming Promise has declared the dastardly goal of overturning the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and to open the doors to campaign finance “reform,” or regulating free speech by restricting the money used to pay for it. Wyoming Promise aims to accomplish this by gathering 38,818 signatures to trigger a ballot initiative in the 2018 or 2020 election. This means an intense statewide effort, because Wyoming law requires gathering signatures not just in number but geographically throughout the state. Signatures for censorship; what a depressing idea.

I wonder what signature gatherers will tell prospective signatories. Here’s an idea:

“Excuse me, do you have a minute? Have you heard of the Citizens United decision? Before the 2008 election, a group called Citizens United made a movie about Hillary Clinton, but couldn’t broadcast it on television because federal law prohibited it. Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that they could show the movie, because it’s free speech. Can you believe that? We need to amend the First Amendment to the Constitution so that groups can’t make movies about politicians. Will you please sign our petition to help make this happen?”

Even though that’s exactly what Citizens United was about, and Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart even conceded during oral arguments in the case that upholding the laws in question would open the door to banning books, I suspect the above won’t be the pitch used to gather signatures, because few would disagree with the court’s actual ruling. Instead, Wyoming Promise will grumble about political speech being a form of “legalized bribery” and advocate impossible notions of equality.

The effort is, indeed, impossible without destroying free speech. Look no further than the words of the proposed amendment that Wyoming Promise supports. Just kidding: there are no words, yet. Rather, Wyoming Promise would like Congress or even a constitutional convention to convene to amend the First Amendment. American Promise, the national parent of Wyoming Promise, has not yet nailed down exactly what wording it supports. But the few proposals put forward by other groups, such as one from We The People, are ominous. We The People’s amendment would not only overturn Citizens United and allow the censorship of speech from corporations and unions that the government disapproves of, but newspapers, television stations, even your own posts on internet platforms like Facebook. Other proposals like the “Democracy for All Amendment” claim to preserve “the freedom of the press,” but do not account for corporations like, for example, the feared Citizens United, becoming “press” entities. While political organizations with money (there’s that dirty word again) can afford legal representation to comb through red tape and fight for free speech loopholes such as “press” status under amendments like this, grassroots groups would be out of luck. And this is supposed to be about “equality”?

Lest there be any lingering doubt that Wyoming Promise is about censorship, the chairman of the organization, Kenneth Chestek, has made that fairly clear in interview after interview. Like former Senator Alan Simpson, who sits on the board of American Promise, Chestek’s concern is not that groups are spending, but that they’re saying things he disagrees with. It is admirable that Chestek aspired to run a polite race when he was a candidate for the Wyoming House last fall, but it was not just his race to run. Citizens of all stripes may speak out about candidates and issues, and sometimes they do this with different levels of diplomacy. (Notably, Senator Simpson’s own bravado may strike some people as uncouth.) Punishing citizens for criticizing politicians is not unheard of in American history, like the Sedition Act of 1798, but no one is proud of those moments.

Perhaps Wyoming Promise can promise it supports free speech, but this does not square with prohibiting or over-regulating individuals and organizations who are paying for mailers, newspaper ads, television commercials or any form of political engagement. The Wyoming Promise petition is about censorship, plain and simple.

Stephen Klein is an attorney with the Pillar of Law Institute, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Washington, DC, and a lobbyist for the Wyoming Liberty Group.

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Saturday, 24 February 2018

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