Accountable speech isn’t free

I happen to have been in a rare position to witness up close the new political environment under this recently epic U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

I refer to the one saying corporations and special interest groups possess free speech rights and cannot have their campaign spending restricted.

It is not pretty. It is not fair. It is not right.

The problem isn’t free speech. We’re all for that. It’s a lack of accountability for the speech. And it’s an uneven playing field in regard to disclosure of the free speakers.

It’s what Democrats tried to address last week in the U.S. Senate, and it’s what Republicans filibustered to prevent.

My home-state example isn’t partisan at all. It’s within the Democratic Party. That goes to show that the issue transcends the ever-predictable polarization that, as always, paralyzed the Senate last week.

In Arkansas, an incumbent U.S. senator, a pro-business centrist Democrat, got opposed in the recent primary from the left by a candidate coaxed into the race and financially sustained in it by labor unions mad at the incumbent over card check and trade and health care.

What the candidates spent directly from funds raised under legal caps was almost incidental. What the candidates said was almost incidental.

Instead this defined the race: We saw saturating, misleading attack ads on television against the incumbent by labor unions that identified themselves in their ads, and we saw saturating and misleading attack ads against the challenger by business groups that did not identify themselves in their ads.

The pervasive deceit in the rhetoric was indeed a problem. But that cut both ways.

What cut only one way, and posed the greater injustice, was in knowing, or not knowing, who was doing the deceiving.

Unions identified themselves in their unfair attacks on the incumbent, and we knew where unions got their money, meaning from dues-paying members.

On the other hand, the business attacks on the challenger came from front groups with pointless names, and we didn’t know the identities of their underwriters, who almost assuredly were fewer in number and greater in investment size that union dues-payers.

So you had this utter outrage: Some mysterious outfit calling itself Americans for Job Security ran a stereotypically racist ad with actors from India thanking the challenger for bringing jobs to their country, based on his having served on the board of a high-tech venture that put a lot of jobs in America and a few jobs in India.

The best we could tell was that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rounded up some anonymous benefactors to call themselves by this meaningless name.

Racism, you see, is infinitely easier to execute when you’re cloaked. It’s such a tried and true concept — putting a hood over racism, I mean.

Republicans opposed the bill last week by saying it was unfair to exempt small donors, thus union dues-payers, from the disclosure that would apply to business donors.

But my experience is that we know explicitly who the unions are and implicitly where their money comes from. But we don’t know who the business front groups are and where their money comes from.

It’s logical to allow a labor union to sponsor an ad without listing all the dues payers below $600 whose dues contributed to the placement of the ad. But it’s fair and just to force the business front groups to list anybody anteing up more than $600.

Republicans complained that Democrats were trying to give themselves an advantage in November and were taking their eyes off the appropriate ball, meaning the economy.

Both charges were true. But neither charge changed the merit of the specific measure. Beware of those who argue against one thing by invoking an entirely different thing.

In the end, what happened is that Republicans protected the secret advantage of big business donors in our politics.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@

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