AJOC EDITORIAL: Another Senate race, another attack on free speech

For the second U.S. Senate election in a row, the incumbent campaign is threatening Alaska television stations over political ads it doesn’t like.

In 2010 while fighting for her political life after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller, Sen. Lisa Murkowski had her legal counsel send letters to Alaska television stations warning them that they were putting their Federal Communications Commission licenses at risk by running ads against her that were paid for by the Tea Party Express.

Murkowski’s counsel claimed the ads constituted “false advertising” and the stations could lose their FCC license by continuing to run them. Of course, Murkowski’s lawyers knew (or should know) full well that as a public figure, her chance of proving slander or libel were virtually nil and the stations were in no danger of losing their broadcast licenses.

But that didn’t stop them from trying to put the arm on Alaska media stations — “nice FCC license you have there, be a shame if something happened to it” — and thankfully no one pulled the ads based on the Murkowski campaign threats.

They all still have licenses, and as far as we know there was never any legal complaint filed against the stations or the Tea Party Express, which just goes to show the empty bluster of the initial threat.

So here we are again almost three years to the day later, and Sen. Mark Begich had his lawyers at Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C., fire off a letter to Alaska TV stations Sept. 5 demanding they “immediately” stop running ads sponsored by the American Energy Alliance accusing Begich of wanting you to believe “a carbon tax is a good idea.”

Like Murkowski’s, the letter from Begich’s attorneys also warns Alaska TV stations that their FCC licenses are at risk by continuing to run the AEA ads and helpfully concludes with their phone number and the presumptuous instruction to, “Please contact us to confirm the ad is no longer running on your station as soon as possible.”

According to an AEA press release dated Sept. 11, all Alaska stations have once again round-filed the demand letter and are continuing to run the ad. (I saw it for the first time the morning of Sept. 17.)

Regardless of the content of the ads in question, it is an attack on the First Amendment for sitting U.S. Senators to use the weight of their offices and the explicit threat of losing FCC licenses to intimidate broadcasters as a means to silence the political speech of their opponents.

Private companies such as TV stations can make any decision they choose regarding what sort of ads are carried without infringing on the First Amendment. When government attempts to exercise this sort of restraint on speech, it’s flat out unconstitutional and must be identified as such.

Nevertheless, we’ll examine the content of the accusation in question by the AEA regarding Begich and whether he supports a carbon tax.

The AEA points to a March 22, 2013, vote by Begich in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that would require revenue from a carbon tax — if one was imposed — to be “returned to the American people in the form of federal deficit reduction, reduced federal tax rates, cost savings or other direct benefits.”

AEA points to the comments from Whitehouse on the Senate floor in support of his amendment when he said, “I urge that we support this amendment that will allow us to put a price on carbon and protect the American people.”

The Whitehouse amendment failed 41-58, with 13 Democrats voting against it.

Begich, naturally, has a different take from AEA and has emphatically stated that he opposes a carbon tax.

That’s all well and good, but the trouble is that while Begich has declared he does not support a carbon tax, he has a vote on his record approving of Whitehouse’s plan for divvying up the money if there ever was one.

In other words, a carbon tax is a bad idea, but Whitehouse has a good idea for how to spend the money. Not exactly an ironclad position.

The record offers enough for both sides to make an argument to put this debate in the realm of interpretation rather than the black and white of true and false, especially in the realm of politics. It certainly doesn’t rise anywhere near the level of “false advertising” that Begich’s lawyers are claiming in their attempt to get the AEA ad pulled from the Alaska airwaves.

Begich’s campaign manager Susanne Fleek told the D.C. publication The Hill in a Sept. 5 article that the AEA ad was “just another reason Alaskans don’t like Outsiders telling them what to do.”

That’s an interesting take, given the role of Alaska in the national energy picture and the number of corporations with headquarters outside our borders that operate here. It is also interesting Fleek would single out the Koch brothers as the Democrats’ favorite billionaire bogeymen, who just happen to own the Flint Hills refinery at North Pole.

Last I checked that’s inside Alaska.

Regardless, the 2014 Senate elections, including Begich’s race, are going to have national impacts and any U.S. citizen or group has the right to participate.

It’s the same right held by all the lawyers, lobbyists and corporations like Microsoft and Comcast who are the leading donors to Begich’s campaign.

With $4 million raised since he took office in 2009, and about $2 million in cash on hand according to the latest report on opensecrets.org, Begich is more than capable of answering the AEA ad with one of his own. Of course, it’s probably cheaper to pay a $1,000/hour lawyer to write a letter and hope some TV stations cave, but that plan landed with a dull thud.

What the AEA ad actually gets to is the deeper problem for Begich in this election: He caucuses with a party and a president that simply do not have the best interests of Alaska at heart.

All too often — unlike his counterpart Murkowski who was primaried by Miller for her independent streak — Begich has been a dependable party-line voter for the Democrats since taking office and the Whitehouse amendment is just one example.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Begich supports a carbon tax and I do believe he wants what’s best for Alaska. Too bad the same can’t be said for his party friends in D.C. who don’t care much for Alaska, or free speech for that matter.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

09/19/2013 - 11:02am