GUEST COMMENTARY: S. 1 would muzzle free speech

If you want to turn private life into political warfare, there’s a bill in the U.S. Senate just for you. It’s the Democrats’ 800-page election takeover, S. 1.

Promoted as a voting and campaign reform measure, 300 pages of the bill actually contain new restrictions on your First Amendment rights to association and free speech. These provisions have been criticized by everyone from the ACLU to Mitch McConnell, but Democratic leaders refuse to budge. The bill has already passed the House of Representatives.

S. 1 also seeks to nationalize election law in ways that won’t fit our unique state. I oversaw elections as Gov. Sean Parnell’s lieutenant governor. Alaska’s election rules reflect our vast land areas, diverse languages and cultures, and even the challenges of getting an ID card if you live in rural Alaska. Sadly, S. 1 will not allow for our uniqueness and diversity. It turns more power over elections to the federal government, and overrides our state’s constitution in several ways.

A second challenge in the law is its effort to stifle political debate and undermine individual privacy, both things Alaskans hold dear. Under S. 1, any group that mentions a candidate in communications about legislation or public affairs could be forced to publicly expose its supporters. This will discourage Americans from joining groups that speak about the issues. It would also violate the privacy of longstanding nonprofit organizations that care about public policy and good government.

Americans have a First Amendment right to privately support charities and civic groups, including through membership. Doing so should not “brand” someone as fully supporting everything that group does or advocates. A garden or gun club, an aviators’ group, or a snowmachine group might have views on parklands or air traffic control or access to public lands. Why should they have to release their membership to make their feelings known on a legislative issues?

First Amendment freedom has been vital to social movements, including many that are now celebrated among our democracy’s greatest achievements. Americans who challenge the establishment have good reason to value their privacy.

One of the great victories of the civil rights movement was a unanimous 1958 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court protecting citizen privacy. It said Alabama could not force the NAACP to turn over a list of its members. The Court saw that “compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as (other) forms of governmental action.”

In other words, censorship isn’t the only way the government can make a troublesome group or viewpoint disappear. If it can weaponize the law to force organizations to expose their members, it can dry up support for any group that dares to criticize the government. Soon enough, the criticism goes away, or at least gets a heck of a lot quieter.

Importantly, the court’s ruling did not just apply to the NAACP or in the South. It protected the right to private giving for all Americans and from all governments. The threats to citizens today, and the chill to speech, are significantly greater.

Thanks to the internet, private giving that is publicly exposed will be available for all time, to anyone, in just a few clicks. Who knows what opinions will get you “canceled” a generation from now? Even today, three out of four voters say they cannot speak openly because of how others would react to their views. S. 1 would silence us more.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski courageously stood for privacy and the First Amendment freedoms of Alaskans during the 2005 Patriot Act debates. I agree with the sentiments she expressed then about the importance of “providing safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.”

She fought giving the government power to do a “fishing expedition” into our library, health and gun records. Now I’m hopeful our delegation stands together to protect our privacy, by defeating S. 1. Congressman Don Young has already voted no.

Private giving is the protection that new ideas need in a democracy. History teaches us that some of them, maybe even those we regard as silly or strange today, will become the founding principles of our future. No wonder those in power want to shut them down.

Mead Treadwell was lieutenant governor of Alaska from 2010-2014. He is a board member of Alaska Policy Forum and many other nonprofit groups.

Updated: 
05/12/2021 - 12:17pm