The Jan. 9 editorial, “Add transparency on campaign ads,” contributed an important voice to the debate over compelling disclosure of the identities of supporters of advocacy organizations that seek to persuade voters. In the four years since Gov. Mark Dayton appointed me to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, I have consistently taken a different position.
Anonymous speech is deeply ingrained in our American democratic tradition. American democracy not only permits anonymous speech, it depends upon it.
Anonymous speech was critical to the establishment of our democracy. Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense” anonymously; the pamphlet reached and influenced a greater percentage of the population than the TV ads we see in our election seasons today — and certainly with greater impact.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison anonymously wrote the Federalist Papers, the influential articles advocating adoption of the Constitution.
Anonymous speech also has been important in ensuring that the benefits of our democracy extend to all Americans. In the 20th century, civil-rights opponents often sought to deprive civil-rights advocates of anonymity in order to bring commercial and social pressure upon them.
Recognizing that the real purpose of identifying those who associate with political advocacy groups is often to chill their free expression, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that anonymous speech is essential to our freedom. In NAACP vs. Patterson, the court wrote: “It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute … a restraint on freedom of association. … Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”
We do, of course, require disclosure of direct donations to candidates. But courts have held that a core reason those laws pass constitutional muster is that a contributor is free to contribute to advocacy groups not controlled by the candidate. Compelled-identification laws would, therefore, deprive current campaign-finance laws of an important part of their constitutional foundation.
History teaches that broadly accepted ideas that are held dear, and even taken for granted, in one generation often could only be espoused under the protection of anonymity in a previous generation.
Let’s protect anonymous speech, not weaken a fundamental freedom on which our democracy has been based.
Daniel N. Rosen is a Minneapolis attorney and a member of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.