Who’s behind the curtain trying to manipulate us?
State Republican Party chairman Claude Pope recently asked Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to investigate Progress NC, a Democratic-leaning group, charging the group claimed to be a federal tax-exempt non-profit organization when they were not, further stating their license to solicit in our state should be revoked.
There is no small irony that Republicans want to investigate left-leaning groups, because for years it was the other way around. Democrats traditionally have pointed fingers at right-leaning organizations like The John Locke Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and Civitas, questioning both their motives and who was funding them. As often happens, when the shoe is on the other foot, people don’t like it.
Even though we have no knowledge how Secretary Marshall will rule on the GOP request the matter raises two significant questions.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision we’ve seen an explosion of innocuously named groups filling our mailboxes and flooding our airways. There are two predominant kinds of groups at work, both not-for-profit organizations.
The first is identified in the IRS tax codes as a 501(c)3 organization, meaning the organization doesn’t pay income taxes and contributions made to this group can be deducted from individual or corporate state and federal income taxes to the limits prescribed by law. This type of organization has strict limits on the amount of lobbying or advocacy it can conduct.
Then there are the latest iterations, 501(c)4, “social welfare” or other “c” types of organizations. While they are non-profits, donations to them are not tax-deductible. They obviously define “social welfare” very loosely, urging the adoption of legislation, advocating for issues, even speaking for or against candidates, allowed to do so as long as the group considers it “germane to the organization’s programs.”
Neither group is required to publish the names of individuals, corporations or non-profits contributing to them, leaving us much like Dorothy trying to learn the true identity of the Wizard of Oz. I know the motivation and identity of a car dealer, retailer or other advertiser trying to persuade me to buy or use a product or service. The Federal Communications Commission even requires political candidates to identify who sponsored and paid for political advertising. Shouldn’t it also be required that we know the true identity behind ads asking us to support an issue, advocate a position or even a politician?
The Citizens United decision said any person (and corporations were considered persons) should be allowed to contribute to advocacy groups, citing the foundational First Amendment rights to free speech. But should this right be without limits? Should the group be allowed to prevail simply because it spent unlimited sums? More times than not the candidate who spends the most wins the office. The Supreme Court is currently considering the question of financial limits and we are eager to see their verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
In the classic 1939 MGM movie Oz manipulated everyone until Dorothy boldly pulled back the curtain to expose him. It is time to do the same with these groups. Who is behind them? Who is contributing and how much are they contributing? With every freedom comes a corresponding responsibility and the freedom of speech should be accompanied by a corresponding freedom for information.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 5:00am on WLOS-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.