My Turn: Making free speech free again

The election isn’t over yet. Sen. Mark Begich hasn’t conceded. There also are votes to count before declaring a winner in the race for governor. At least we won’t be subjected to any more robocalls, offensive television ads or dishonest mailers for a while.

 

If we really want to prevent a repeat of this ugly campaign cycle, we’ve got fewer than two years to demand Congress strengthen our individual rights by amending the U.S. Constitution to affirm that corporations aren’t people and spending money isn’t speech.

In the days after the polls closed, I received several more campaign mailers. Most were from Americans for Prosperity, the Super PAC founded by billionaire David Koch. He and his brother Charles are co-owners of Koch Industries. Although the law doesn’t require them to disclose how much money they gave to AFP, it’s pretty evident that their wealth bought them a louder voice than any Alaskan.

But before I rip AFP apart, let me be clear that this isn’t a partisan attack. I found PAC ads attacking Dan Sullivan on behalf of Begich to be just as misleading and offensive.

I kept the latest AFP ads attacking Begich because they arrived so late. They’re all blatantly dishonest in one way or another. Each one said AFP “paid for and is responsible for the content of this advertising.” But in this case, responsibility means nothing because we know AFP won’t be charged with false advertising.

One mailer falsely claimed Begich cast the deciding vote on Obamacare when in fact Democrats had nine more votes than they needed in the Senate. Two others contained a web page reference supposedly supporting their attack on Begich. I checked them out. Neither included any information about Begich, Democrats or even Alaska.

“Alaskans have every right to criticize politicians,” a fourth AFP ad states. “Defend the First Amendment and fire Mark Begich.” The supporting evidence referenced on this mailer was nothing more than an opinion piece written by Sen. Mitch McConnell that read like a campaign ad itself.

The Kentucky Republican was addressing a real bill proposed by Senate Democrats that would have allowed Congress and the states to regulate and limit fundraising and spending in federal elections. It had nothing to do with 99.9 percent of the American public. Rather, it would have ended anonymous and unlimited campaign spending by wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and every other large group with deep pockets.

There are multiple ironies in this particular freedom of speech ad. First, it wasn’t paid for with Alaskan money or produced in the state. The ad writers seemed unaware that in statewide elections, Alaska has laws limiting campaign spending. It prohibits corporations, business organizations and unions from contributing to candidates or political parties. In 2010, Gov. Sean Parnell signed amendments to the law that require ads by independent groups to list their top three donors and prohibit them from making defamatory statements about a candidate.

Alaska campaign law doesn’t prevent any citizen from criticizing our politicians. The bill Senate Democrats supported wouldn’t have, either. It’s real freedom, too, since it doesn’t cost us a dime to speak out.

That’s the real irony in this debate. Speech isn’t free when you have to spend money, let alone millions of dollars, to express your views. And unlike a country where oppression of political speech forces activists underground to spread their message, people like the Koch bothers don’t have to hide. They just choose to conceal themselves in the same cowardly manner that online bloggers do when using aliases.

What effect is this having on our real freedoms? In a 2012 Washington Post piece she co-authored, Sen. Lisa Murkowski explained that the “unregulated political cash stemming from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision” and the “anonymity of much of this spending encourages ads that lower the level of political discourse and makes it harder, not easier, for Americans to make informed decisions.”

Murkowski is right. The kind of campaign advertising unleashed by Citizens United is irresponsibly undermining our democracy. The way to hold groups like AFP accountable is to enact a constitutional amendment that takes away their freedom to spend unlimited amounts of money to spread their deceitful campaign advertising.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 35 years of experience working in the public sector.

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