Guest Column: Disclosure Act discourages citizen participation

By Jane Ryan Carrell

The Congress came within inches of suppressing free speech before elections July 27. The Senate vote was on cloture (Shall we vote on this bill?) rather than the actual legislation. The DISCLOSE Act had passed the House on a 219-208 vote in June. DISCLOSE stands for the cutesy title “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending Elections,” but is more accurately summed up in a National Right to Life Committee press release: “Deterring Independent Speech about Congress except by Labor Organizations and Selected Elites.”

The House vote included only two Republicans, but that didn’t stop the president from calling it a “bipartisan bill” in a speech the day before the vote in the Senate. The bill gives a pass to unions and the NRA on its requirements that small and recently-organized groups (read “Tea Party”) must file paperwork reporting their largest donors when they sponsor advertising about candidates before elections. The bill’s backers (most Democrats) know that these restrictions on speech will surely be found unconstitutional, but not before the fall election. The DISCLOSE Act was offered as a response to the High Court’s strikedown of aspects of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform in its January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In a letter to members of Congress, the NRL Committee said the DISCLOSE Act was designed “to discourage, as much as possible, disfavored groups (such as NRLC) from communicating about officeholders, by exposing citizens who support such efforts to harassment and intimidation, and by smothering organizations in layer on layer of record keeping and reporting requirements, all backed by the threat of civil and criminal sanctions.” The bill singles out organizations that are of recent vintage (Tea Party). What possible relevance does a group’s date of founding have for its right of free speech? The date distinction, and singling out smaller organizations, allowed them to carve an exception for the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose opposition Congress had hoped to avoid.

Michael Macleod-Ball, ACLU Chief Legislative and Policy Counsel, said of the bill: “The ACLU supports the disclosure of large contributions to candidates as long as it does not have a chilling effect on political participation, but the DISCLOSE Act would inflict unnecessary damage to free speech rights and does not include the proper safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy. The bill would severely impact donor anonymity, especially those donors who give to smaller and more controversial organizations.”

Dem staffers speak of resurrecting the bill in September. We will almost certainly be treated to pious-sounding Democrat candidates at election time, telling us how Republicans stood in the way of “campaign finance reform.” Don’t expect the mainstream media to clarify.

Jane Ryan Carrell is coordinator for the Northern Illinois Tea Party. She may be contacted at

From the Aug. 11-17, 2010 issue

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