Gag me with a bill

January 29, 2017

Inside Insight, Uncategorized

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By PHILLIP CEASE

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Our legislators get busy — silencing critics

Over the past two weeks, members of both the South Carolina house and senate have introduced legislation that would require much more disclosure.

With one member of the General Assembly already indicted for ethics violations, totaling above a million dollars in payments he took improperly, according to the charges, and rumors that more indictments will follow, these bills should be a welcome change.

But they aren’t. They wouldn’t change the way our legislators do business at all.

Instead, they’d actually shield lawmakers from criticism.

S.255 and H.3571 are nearly identical. Both would force individuals or groups that are “not organized or operating for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates” to disclose all donors if they engage in something called “election communication.”

That term isn’t defined in the state constitution, or in state law — yet. In these two bills, it means printing material or buying ads that “support or oppose a clearly identified candidate” or “influence the outcome of an election.”

That last phrase is so broad that it could encompass practically any issue advocacy, from fliers about a school board decision to newspaper endorsements. And who can determine what influences the outcome of an election? Have we not just seen how hard that is to do with our last presidential election?

Under these bills, an organization that engages in non-election-related issue advocacy would either have to refrain from criticizing any legislator’s voting record, or else disclose all its donors, leaving those donors open to intimidation by lawmakers and their allies.

It’s as though a robber is exiting a bank with the loot (not that far of a stretch really based on how some legislators make money) and stops to tell a legitimate customer that he really ought to roll his change before trying to deposit it.

The courts have clearly outlined how to regulate speech and when it can be done. These bills fall far short of those standards. Besides showing just how thin-skinned our legislators are, passing them would only invite a day in court.