Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I love open government

The Alabama Senate on Tuesday put a resounding stamp of approval on a bill that would require nonprofit groups to disclose their donors if they spend more than $1,000 to affect an election. The bill will move on to the House, where a large majority of members have already voted for similar legislation.

The president of the state Christian Coalition, John Giles, is appropriately shocked and awed, especially since his organization has a habit of printing reams of "issue advocacy" voter guides, better known as experiments in how close you can come to endorsing a candidate without actually doing it. The Christian Coalition of Alabama, as you may remember, led the campaign against an amendment to remove segregation-era language from the state constitution, so it's likely that a few legislators see this bill as their chance for revenge.

Giles' rhetoric about "a chilling of free speech" rings hollow. Legislators don't want to forbid the Christian Coalition from engaging in issue advocacy; they just want the group to tell who's paying the bills if they do. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring the public knows who's pouring money into efforts to influence an election, and this plan needs to aim to do that without venturing into unconstitutional territory.

The coalition could try to cobble together an argument based on NAACP v. Alabama that the forced disclosures would violate the Fourteenth Amendment by subjecting its members to "economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility." The reality, though, is that being a Christian in Alabama rarely, if ever, subjects a person to any of those things. Also, the bill would only require the disclosure of a group's donors, not its entire membership, so any effect on free association would likely be minimal.

Too much of Alabama politics has been conducted in the shadows for too long. Regardless of their motivation, legislators may be about to turn on a little more light with this bill.

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