My New Year’s resolutions:
Exercise my freedom of speech, granted as an inalienable right by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, to comment without fear of censorship.
Hire a good lawyer.
Speaking freely got the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC), a Portland-based conservative think tank in legal trouble. The center (motto: There Is No Subject So Dull We Won’t Issue A Press Release About How We’re Studying It) had the audacity to express its opinion on the subject of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), an initiative that was defeated by a narrow margin in last November’s election. The MHPC favored the proposal, an unsurprising position considering the center wrote the proposed law.
The group’s staff took part in several debates, arguing that spending caps on government would boost the state’s economy. For those egregious acts, the MHPC was hauled before the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices (motto: Preserving Your Liberty By Making Sure Nobody Uses Too Much Of It) to answer charges the center was a political action committee and therefore required to produce detailed reports on its income and expenditures.
The complaint against the MHPC was filed by Carl Lindemann, a Mainer who now lives in Texas, where, apparently, there isn’t much to do. To fill his idle hours, Lindemann concocted an elaborate scheme to ensnare the center by having a college friend in Colorado send the group a $125 donation with a letter saying the money was to help the MHPC win voter approval for TABOR. The center responded with a thank-you letter in which it promised to use the donation “to advance our mission of promoting [TABOR].” Lindemann claimed that showed the MHPC was accepting contributions as if it were a political action committee, but avoiding the PAC disclosure requirements.
In a phone interview, Lindemann insisted he wasn’t trying to stifle free speech. He just wanted it rationed.
“If an organization like the MHPC is going to be engaged in advocacy, they can engage in some,” he said. “But it sure looks like the MHPC has spent more time than allowed on advocacy.”
You can almost feel democracy crumbling.
The ethics commission, after its usual dithering, decided the center wasn’t a PAC and didn’t have to release a detailed financial report, but did have to submit a form showing how much it received to support TABOR and from whom. That made both Lindemann and the MHPC unhappy, and, at last report, everybody was considering appeals.
Maine law governing what constitutes reportable political activity is written broadly. By which I mean with almost no regard for reality. Nonprofit organizations, such as the center, aren’t allowed to advocate for or against ballot measures, because that would be politicking. Which is somehow not protected by the First Amendment. But nonprofits are permitted to educate the public about referendum questions, because education is protected free speech. Unless a teacher mentions evolution or two lesbians raising a child.
Here are some of the terrible things MHPC staffers said that convinced Lindemann and his allies the center had crossed the line:
“TABOR allows people paying the bills, not politicians, to have the final say in exceeding tax and spending limitations.”
“The referendum campaign will be a choice between those who support the status quo versus those who believe in greater economic prosperity.”