Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Whose money talks?

First Amendment | New report issues state free speech rankings based on political contribution laws
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 4/03/18, 02:00 pm

What political attributes do deep-red Alabama and deep-blue Oregon have in common?

Both states permit unlimited political campaign contributions by individuals, political parties, and political action committees (PACs). So do Nebraska, Utah, and Virginia. All five states share the top ranking in a first-of-its kind report by the Institute for Free Speech (IFS).

The non-profit organization reviewed campaign finance laws in every state and ranked the states according to five criteria. The results challenge the idea that unrestricted financial contributions corrupt the political process.

Eleven states in all shades of red and blue earned the lowest grade, with Kentucky having the most restrictive contribution laws. But in a different poll conducted by the Institution of Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, the Bluegrass State excelled: It ranked No. 1 in political corruption, according to journalists who cover the nation’s statehouses.

“Low limits can also help protect the corrupt,” IFS president David Keating told me. “When contribution limits are low, it requires the participation of more citizens to get the word out about corrupt behavior or the need for change.”

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal agreed.

“Power is the main source of corruption in politics, and the right to donate to candidates can help sweep out the abusers,” the board wrote in a March 25 op-ed highlighting the IFS report.

Some states adjusted their contribution regulations after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC that ended restrictive federal campaign finance laws. Still others maintain complex and outdated regulations, according to the IFS report.

The IFS assessed states according to five criteria: Do they allow individuals, parties, and PACs to contribute? Do they adjust for inflation? And do they allow unions and corporations to contribute? By simply adjusting existing laws, some dating back to the 1970s, for inflation, states can improve their rankings and allow their citizens to contribute more, Keating said.

More than an effort to dispel the cash-equals-corruption idea, Keating noted the IFS report illustrates the disparate regulations that stymy citizens’ freedom of speech, assembly, and petition. It provides a frame of reference for reporters who cover statehouses and researchers seeking corruption correlation.

Newspaper editorial boards in states with low rankings considered the report a call for their legislators to update old and complex laws.

“If so many other states can operate with far less restrictive campaign finance limits, without creating any notable problems, then there’s no reason to think Oklahoma can’t do the same,” wrote the editorial board of The Oklahoman.

Creative Commons/Jared Piper/PHLCouncil Creative Commons/Jared Piper/PHLCouncil Philadelphia City Council member Cindy Bass

No love in Philly for Christian foster agencies

In a decision rife with contradictions, the city of Philadelphia severed ties with two Christian adoption agencies over their refusal to place children in homes with LGBT parents. The decision came at the urging of city council member Cindy Bass less than three weeks after the city issued a desperate call for 300 new foster families.

Philadelphia contracts with 26 foster and adoption care agencies, including Bethany Christian Services and Catholic Social Services, to place 6,000 children in the city’s care. Both agencies face ongoing legal pressure in other states to abandon their Biblical convictions about marriage. Bass piled on in a March 15 resolution demanding an investigation into the Department of Human Services’ contracts with agencies that “discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.”

Combined, the two agencies supported 233 children in foster homes. The agencies maintain some clients seek like-minded, faith-based services when seeking to foster or adopt a child. The city’s website for prospective foster parents appears to agree: “Browse the list of foster agencies to find the best fit for you. You want to feel confident and comfortable with the agency you choose. This agency will be a big support to you during your resource parent journey.” —B.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez (file) Associated Press/Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez (file) Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Google wins first round in fight with conservative radio host

Round one in the Prager University v. Google legal battle went to Google last month when a federal judge dismissed conservative radio host Dennis Prager’s lawsuit against the internet behemoth and its subsidiary YouTube. In her March 26 decision, District Judge Lucy Koh left open the option for Prager to file an amended complaint on appeal.

In October 2016, YouTube tagged some of PragerU’s videos with a “restricted mode” designation, denying access for viewers who filter out objectionable content. Prager sued, accusing YouTube and Google of viewpoint discrimination and demonetizing the videos.

Prager will appeal as far as the U.S. Supreme Court “if that is what it takes to ensure every American’s freedom of speech is protected online” said Marissa Streit, CEO of PragerU, in a statement responding to the decision. —B.P.

Is humanism a religion?

A convicted murderer won his lawsuit demanding the North Carolina Department of Public Safety recognize his declared faith, humanism, as a religion within the state’s prison system. Backed by attorneys from the American Humanist Association (AHA), inmate Kwame Jamal Teague filed suit in 2015 after the state refused him the same accommodations as other recognized religions.

In his decision last week, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle noted the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2015 recognized humanism as a “faith group.” AHA attorneys declared the ruling a “monumental victory.”

But lawmakers and government administrators continue to debate the question of humanism’s role in the realm of religion within government institutions. Earlier last month, the U.S. Navy announced it had, for a second time, rejected a humanist’s application to serve as a Navy chaplain. —B.P.

Facebook face-off

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan must establish rules for his Facebook page that promote free discourse under a settlement with four plaintiffs who claimed the Republican politician blocked them from accessing his page. The American Civil Liberties Union took up their complaint and filed suit in August, arguing the governor’s actions violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit alleges Hogan blocked 450 people, all critics of his policies, from his Facebook account between 2015 and 2017. The complaint follows a series of lawsuits against government officials nationwide for blocking critical followers from social media accounts. Plaintiffs argue sites like Facebook and Twitter serve as virtual public forums that must remain open to all.

As part of the settlement announced Tuesday, Hogan admitted no wrongdoing but established a new social media policy that bars viewpoint discrimination, creates a “Constituent Message Page” on another social media platform for additional communication with the governor, and creates a process for contesting deleted posts or media access.

The State of Maryland must pay plaintiffs $65,000 as part of the settlement. —B.P.

Air Force officer acted in good faith

Col. Leland B.H. Bohannon did not discriminate against a subordinate when he declined in May 2017 to sign an optional congratulatory document for the same-sex partner of a retiring airman, U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Monday in a letter exonerating Bohannon.

The retiring airman filed a discrimination complaint and a review board found Bohannon guilty of unlawful discrimination. But the Air Force Review Boards Agency granted Bohannon’s appeal and concluded he “had the right to exercise his sincerely held religious beliefs,” Wilson said in the letter to Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.

“The decision on appeal applied current Air Force policy and the law,” Wilson wrote. “It is an example of a situation in which protected, and potentially competing, interests must be carefully examined and resolved.” —B.P.

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Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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