Friday, December 6, 2013
Two recent federal court decisions support the idea that voters should know who is trying to influence their votes. Both back good state laws that make political actors identify themselves.
In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal of a lower court ruling upholding Maine's law requiring the disclosure of contributors to political action committees in referendum campaigns. The law was challenged by the National Organization for Marriage, which bought the bulk of the winning side's ads in the 2009 anti-same-sex marriage people's veto campaign.
In Portland, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torreson agreed with the state's ethics commission, which found that the website "The Cutler Files" was a political communication made by a campaign operative and should be subject to disclosure requirements, just like the people behind a television ad.
The creator of the website, Dennis Bailey, a political professional, said what he was doing is constitutionally protected free speech, arguing that the public may never get to hear important information if the speaker has to be afraid of what might happen to him if he is exposed. But Judge Torreson rightly ruled that the fact that Bailey was a consultant working with two of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler's opponents meant that he was not just a whistleblower, but a participant in the campaign and so subject to the law.
The two rulings are significant because they provide the public with information that it should have when evaluating political messages. As shown by the current election cycle in Maine -- where Republican money has been spent to support a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in the hopes of a bank-shot win for the Republican in the race -- the identity of the speaker can matter as much as what he or she says.
If an opponent of a candidate wants to tear down his opponent on the Internet, it doesn't carry as much weight as if the same message was delivered by an unbiased source. Voters need all the information they can get, and in these two cases, the courts were on their side for a change.