The revelation that the Internal Revenue Service unfairly targeted some groups because of their political beliefs has brought the importance of free speech rights into sharp focus.
Sadly, the American business community has also had to fend off efforts to silence our voice through fear, intimidation and overregulation. Labor unions, shareholder activists and anti-business policymakers have long sought to stifle the voice of business in the political process and the public debate.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has been asked by these groups to make a rule that would compel public companies to disclose their spending on independent political speech. These same anti-business groups continue to push the Federal Election Commission for a rule to burden organizations that engage in independent political speech by forcing them to publicly reveal their donors.
In 2010, some in Congress tried to sway the midterm elections in their favor through the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would have chilled political participation by the business community — but not by labor unions. The bill was defeated. But business opponents still want to see its principles enacted, and some lawmakers are working to revive the legislation.
Proponents of such efforts claim that they are simply fighting for transparency. Don’t be fooled. What they really want is to silence viewpoints they don’t like in order to have a one-sided conversation with the American people in the public square. They aim to do this by regulating speech they don’t like and intimidating and harassing speakers they don’t agree with.
For instance, the anti-business organization Media Matters has pledged to use disclosed political information to target companies and “provoke backlashes among … shareholders, employees, customers and the public.” They have promised to coordinate with their allies and misconstrue businesses’ political activities and endorsements. And that’s just one example of one organization.
Calls for disclosure of political speech under the guise of transparency will continue, but transparency is no virtue when it becomes a tool to punish free speech.
Businesses and the organizations representing them have a right to make their views known and their voices heard. Our opponents are free to disagree. They are welcome to take us on in the public arena through the exchange of ideas. But whether it happens in the shadows of bureaucracy, as with the IRS scandal, or in the light of day through legislation and rulemaking, there should be no room in government or civil society for those who seek to trample on the constitutionally guaranteed rights that we all cherish and should respect.
— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.