What if "We the People" were severely restricted from becoming informed and speaking out in the legislative process? Congress Seeks to Silence Its Critics, Chill Grassroots Activism

What if "We the People" were severely restricted from becoming informed and speaking out in the legislative process?

Well, that could be the case if some in Congress get their way.

The Senate is currently debating legislation (S. 1), the "Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007," which purports to address much-needed lobbying and ethics concerns.  While much of S. 1 would indeed be useful, buried deep in the legislation is Section 220, a dangerous provision that could chill the constitutionally protected right of citizens to petition their government.

Section 220, aimed at silencing grassroots organizations, civic groups, community associations, churches and all other entities that inform the public about pending legislation and encourage advocacy, would force such organizations to file onerous quarterly reports with Congress detailing each and every time they alert the general public about what their elected officials in Washington are up to. 

Specifically, the mandated quarterly reports would force disclosure of detailed information about the advocacy organization, its expenditures, the public policy issues addressed and the specific Members of Congress and other federal officials who are the targets of the advocacy efforts.  Failure to report would result in significant fines and criminal penalties.

Ironically, Section 220 provides a loophole for labor unions, corporations and large trade associations, which could continue to mobilize their members and shareholders without being forced to file the arduous reports.

Unhappy with criticism from their constituents, Congressional supporters of the constitutionally-suspect provision – including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) – apparently want small grassroots advocacy organizations and citizens groups to tip their hand on how they are alerting, or plan to alert, the public about important policy issues being debated in Congress.

Simply put, the politicians in Washington supportive of Section 220 – supposedly sent to Congress to represent the people – no longer want to hear from the people.

Fortunately, there is some hope.  Amendment 20 to S. 1, sponsored by Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT), would strike Section 220 from the underlying legislation.  At this writing, the amendment has attracted 11 cosponsors, many of whom signed on just this week.

That's a good start.  But when the Bennett Amendment is ultimately considered and voted on – possibly any day now – all 100 Senators should keep in mind that it was just a few weeks ago when they placed their hands on the Bible to publicly and solemnly swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States."  They should remember that they did so "without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion."

The First Amendment is very clear in stating that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held grassroots advocacy as "core political speech" and that legislative restrictions on such speech are "wholly at odds with the guarantees of the First Amendment."

As one grassroots advocacy organization recently pointed out, "While existing lobbying statutes provide that they shall not be construed to interfere with 'the right to petition the government for redress of grievances ... [or] the right of association, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution,' ... [Section 220] of S. 1 would do just that."  Indeed, it flatly ignores the plain language of the First Amendment and its consistent interpretation by the Supreme Court.

The ability of "We the People" to be informed about the issues currently or likely to be before our government, to contact our elected representatives and to freely encourage others to do the same is fundamental to our representative democracy and inherent in the founding document that governs it.

The Senate oath to "protect and defend the Constitution ... without mental reservation or purpose of evasion" is not one to be taken lightly.  The Bennett Amendment to strip Section 220 from the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007 should and must be passed.

If not, your ability to freely be informed about and make your voice heard on important public policy issues before Congress and the Executive Branch could be severely restricted, if not ultimately eliminated.

UPDATE: Victory for free speech!  On Thursday, January 18, the Senate voted 55-43 in support of the Bennett Amendment.  The vote count is as follows:

Question: On the Amendment (Bennett Amdt. No. 20 )
Vote Date: January 18, 2007,  8:21 pm
Vote Result: Amendment Agreed to:  55 YEAS, 43 NAYS, 2 NOT VOTING

YEAs ---55

Alexander (R-TN)
Allard (R-CO)
Baucus (D-MT)
Bayh (D-IN)
Bennett (R-UT)
Bond (R-MO)
Bunning (R-KY)
Burr (R-NC)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Coleman (R-MN)
Collins (R-ME)
Conrad (D-ND)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Craig (R-ID)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)

Dole (R-NC)
Domenici (R-NM)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Gregg (R-NH)
Hagel (R-NE)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hutchison (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lott (R-MS)
Lugar (R-IN)
Martinez (R-FL)
McCain (R-AZ)

McConnell (R-KY)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Nelson (D-NE)
Roberts (R-KS)
Salazar (D-CO)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Smith (R-OR)
Snowe (R-ME)
Specter (R-PA)
Stevens (R-AK)
Sununu (R-NH)
Thomas (R-WY)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Voinovich (R-OH)
Warner (R-VA)

NAYs ---43

Akaka (D-HI)
Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Clinton (D-NY)
Dodd (D-CT)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)
Feinstein (D-CA)

Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Kohl (D-WI)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lincoln (D-AR)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murray (D-WA)

Nelson (D-FL)
Obama (D-IL)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Webb (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)

Not Voting - 2

Brownback (R-KS)

Johnson (D-SD)

January 17, 2007
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