In the name of protecting democracy, Democratic leaders have built a Trojan horse for censorship.
The so-called “For the People Act” failed a key vote in June. Yet Sen. Joe Manchin’s proposed compromise would revive Democratic leaders’ attempt to disguise harmful restraints on political speech as a win for democracy.
The DISCLOSE Act, a tortured acronym for “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections,” is a part of both S. 1 and Manchin’s compromise proposal. The bill is full of new privacy invasions and political speech regulations that have nothing to do with elections. Instead, the measure burdens the First Amendment freedom to join groups with like-minded individuals and speak freely on bills pending in Congress.
It would expand the blackout period where ads mentioning a candidate are regulated to include more than 10 months out of any election year. But these ads are already regulated in the months leading up to an election. Since nearly all incumbents run for reelection, the effect of DISCLOSE will be to discourage groups of Americans from criticizing their representatives — or even discussing their actions — for nearly half of their term.
Any group sponsoring such an ad would be forced to report to the Federal Election Commission and declare their communication either “in support of or in opposition” to the candidate referenced. Groups that take no position on elections but wish to urge people to contact their representative about a piece of legislation will be forced to lie on a government form. How does that strengthen democracy?
The DISCLOSE Act would also require nonprofits to violate their supporters’ privacy. Groups running ads about legislation would have to publicly reveal sensitive personal information about their supporters, exposing them to harassment and intimidation for their views. The bill would order nonprofits to list some supporter names on the face of the ad itself and falsely label these Americans as supporting or opposing candidates. That’s unfair to them and misleading to the public. Many people will stop giving to such nonprofits due to fear of harassment, threats and job loss. And many nonprofits will be driven to silence to protect their members.
The First Amendment forbids weaponizing the law to dox, cancel and endanger political opponents. Under the guise of improving democracy, Manchin’s compromise would do all that and more. Your neighbor, your boss and your local government officials could all uncover your membership in a nonprofit in seconds — and retaliate accordingly. Somehow, making it unsafe to support a cause is supposed to be empowering.
Manchin would also keep the similarly mislabeled “Honest Ads Act,” which has nothing to do with making ads honest. Rather, it would harm free speech and democracy by stifling speech from grassroots groups. The bill would impose costly and unnecessary regulations on inexpensive online ads that these groups rely on. Internet ads that mention candidates would be regulated even if they never appear where the candidate’s voters might see them. This will further chill discussion, particularly of national political leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
For example, if a group of Californians ran a Facebook ad demanding that the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (in this case, Joe Manchin) pass legislation to reduce wildfires, the “Honest Ads Act” would call that a stealth campaign ad and regulate it to the hilt, even though Californians don’t elect the senators that represent West Virginia. It isn’t “honest” to mischaracterize this call for help on an issue as a call to support or oppose Manchin’s next reelection.
Compelling speech and violating Americans’ privacy is no way to improve democracy. It’s a way to assault the First Amendment and insulate national leaders from criticism.
The For the People Act and Manchin’s compromise would create a censorship nightmare. They would restrict the use of the internet to organize and campaign, subject more discussion of government to federal regulation than ever before and force Americans to sacrifice their privacy to exercise their free speech. It’s not democracy – it’s a trap.
Nathan Maxwell is an intern at the Institute for Free Speech in Washington, DC.