Free speech costs

For a report from the U.S. District Court hearing on the “Yes on 8” suit to be exempt from California’s campaign-disclosure laws, see SN&R’s Snog blog.

Here’s the funny thing about free speech: It costs money. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court decided that political contributions are considered “free speech.”

In addition to the real costs of “free speech,” there’s also the cost of being accountable. Particularly if an issue is unpopular, there’s bound to be—at the very least—heated discussion and harsh words. Politics is laden with conflict. And while we have a constitutional guarantee of free speech, there is no guarantee that such speech will be anonymous. A democracy’s civic workings must be accountable to the public, and that means that money spent to influence government and affect elections needs to be open to public scrutiny.

We don’t have a right to know how someone voted, but we do have a right to know where the money comes from that greases the electoral wheels. People who voted for and against Proposition 8 are rightfully guaranteed a secret ballot. They are not guaranteed secrecy where their financial contributions to those causes are concerned. The public has an iron-clad right to know where the money came from and where it went.

In this particular case, the “Yes on 8” forces went before the U.S. District Court in Sacramento this week to ask that donor lists be kept from the public. They claim that donors are being unfairly discriminated against and have mentioned in their pleas a variety of problems: boycotts, vandalism and threats (including the mailing of suspicious white powder to some churches active in the “Yes on 8” campaign).

Of course, a local synagogue where members had taken a “No on 8” stance was also vandalized, and there are similar claims of harassment of people who supported the marriage-equality position.

But the “Yes on 8” campaign is asking a federal court to rule that their group, and only their group, is exempt from a voter-approved state campaign-finance disclosure law. That alone would be enough to set off the hypocrisy meter. But they seem to have forgotten how, back in October, one of their own ( used the list of donors to the “No on 8” campaign to send letters to businesses suggesting boycotts if they didn’t make an equal contribution to the “Yes” side.

So here’s a bit of common sense to throw in the mix: Public discourse on sensitive topics gets messy. Sometimes people with little in the way of civic sense and a predisposition to violence commit crimes based on their political beliefs; we have laws to punish them. Boycotts are a legitimate means of bringing about change, and it is the right of every citizen to choose to spend money with businesses that support their community.

But however unfortunate or criminal some of the byproducts of free speech might seem, they are in fact part of the price we pay for free speech. In order to use it, we have to be willing to stand by our words, our positions and our money. No group or individual should be exempt from our campaign-disclosure laws.