Friday, December 21, 2018

OCPA column: First Amendment threatened by Ethics Commission

First Amendment threatened by Ethics Commission

Why does an Oklahoma agency want to put you on a list, with your name, home address, employer, and information about your political beliefs all made public?

In California in 2008, the motivation behind publicizing supporters of Proposition 8 was clear: expose people who believe marriage is between one man and one woman to harassment and violence.

In Alabama in 1956, the reason state officials wanted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s membership list was equally clear: expose people who believe in racial equality to harassment and violence.

Both times, state officials disdained the views of those they sought to expose. They knew that by outing those people, they would make it harder for them to organize and take action in the future. It was a way to chill free speech.

Right now, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission is trying to go beyond what California did and Alabama tried to do. It wants to put the membership lists of any nonprofit group or other association online, with each person’s name, home address, and employer, if the group expresses opinions on legislation.

The state currently only requires disclosure when someone writes a check to a campaign or pays another person to directly influence public policy. In both cases, disclosure laws are based on concerns about corruption.

It isn’t that my neighbor has a right to know which candidates I support. Nor do I have a right to know if you hire someone to talk to a legislator. The reason for laws making campaign donations and direct lobbying relationships public is simply to prevent bribery.

Courts have routinely recognized that forced disclosure laws infringe on privacy and can have a chilling effect on free speech. They uphold disclosure laws only when concern about corruption outweighs the harm done to privacy.

When Alabama went after the NAACP’s membership list, the Court found “that the immunity from state scrutiny of membership lists … is here so related to the right of the members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in so doing as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission’s proposed rule would do exactly what Alabama wanted to do, except it would do it to all sorts of groups of people. Every Oklahoman would be at risk of having his or her personal information posted online and being exposed to harassment simply for being an engaged citizen.

Rather than of putting Oklahomans on lists and violating their privacy, the Commission should be working to strengthen our democratic system by protecting Oklahomans’ rights to free speech and personal privacy.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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