Critics say Leatherman bill is attack on free speech

The Senate received a strongly worded letter opposing the bill from the National Right to Work Committee of South Carolina.   File photo

Opponents of a bill filed in the South Carolina Senate that would place more stringent reporting requirements on independent expenditure committees believe it is an attack on free speech.

Senate Bill 255 introduces definitions for independent expenditure committees, but also lists a series of reporting requirements those groups will need to provide, including the name, address and employer of those contributing an aggregate of $1,000 or more in any reporting period.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), the chair of the Finance Committee and, until recently, president pro tempore of the Senate. It was introduced Jan. 17 and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it now sits.

The Senate received a strongly worded letter opposing the bill from the National Right to Work Committee of South Carolina, which argued that it could stifle free speech and leave donors to nonprofit, grass roots organizations open to harassment. The committee argues it is unconstitutional.  

Independent expenditure committees are citizen action groups that engage in issue-based advocacy but not organized or operating in support of or in opposition to particular candidates.

Barton Swaim, communications director for the South Carolina Policy Council, said the impetus for the bill is clear -- lawmakers do not like being criticized. The policy council is a free-market think tank.

“That’s understandable, but when they start trying to regulate political speech that has nothing to do with candidates or campaigns, they have to show that it’s a matter of quid pro quo corruption – and they just haven’t done that in this case,” Swaim told Palmetto Business Daily. “That’s what federal courts have said, repeatedly. And rightly so – public officials are in a position to bully and harass people who support causes the public officials don’t like. That was the reasoning behind NAACP v. Alabama, and it still applies.”

NAACP v Alabama, also cited in the letter by the National Right to Work Committee, is a landmark U.S.Supreme Court judgment overturning a state law that forced organizations to reveal their lists of members and agents.

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, wrote in the letter to the Senate that the 1958 decision found that “members of advocacy organizations with powerful political opponents have legitimate reasons to fear reprisal for exercising their right to free association, and, as such, those donors have a right to privacy.”

The committee believes its donors could be left open to harassment from labor organizations should its names, addresses and employers be published.

“Indeed, S. 255 would be subjecting grassroots organizations to a battery of campaign finance disclosure regulations ordinarily reserved for candidates and PACs,” Mix said. “These itemized reports would allow hostile legislators and their allies to endlessly harass those who dare criticize them by requiring an organization to divulge private information.”

Mix said passage of the bill would unnecessarily and unconstitutionally force nonprofit citizen action groups to adhere to “burdensome and stifling filing requirements.”

“Instituting an additional set of bureaucratic hoops a citizen organization must jump through because it dares to inform the public and criticize elected officials is an affront to our republican form of government,” Mix said in his letter.

In a statement issued when he announced the bill, Leatherman said, “I’m fighting to bring dark money out of the shadows in South Carolina." He did not, however, respond to Palmetto Business Daily's request for comment at the time of publication. 

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