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‘Dark money’ disclosure doesn’t limit free speech

Disclosure doesn’t limit free speech

First Published Jan 25 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 26 2014 11:47 am

They call it "dark money" for a reason.

It is an effort to influence the outcome of elections and the design of public policy with scads of cash from people who want to keep people from knowing just how influential they are. Because, if you did know where the money was coming from, what candidates it was supporting, or opposing, you might view the message they are paying for a lot differently.

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To dignify that practice by calling it "free speech" is to brutally dishonor the whole concept. And to cheapen the glory of our founders, great leaders and brave citizens who have stood in the public square gave as good as they got.

The First Amendment’s freedom of speech gives us all the right to say what we like, often for the purpose of trying to convince the government or the electorate to follow a certain course. It promises that the government will not prevent you from saying it or punish you for having said it.

It does not guarantee a right to be immune from criticism or to influence public policy from behind a curtain.

Yet that is exactly what some critics of Utah’s public disclosure laws want. They object to the rule that the people of Utah be told who has given money to various so-called nonprofit corporations that are set up to run what too often amount to anonymous and inaccurate smear jobs against candidates for public office.

Officials of something called the Institute for Justice object to the law, last year’s HB43, saying some people will be deterred from giving money if their identities are public.

Poor babies.

Nobody is trying to stop speech — TV ads, websites, handbills, billboards — even when the messages are rough, nasty or full of lies. That remains protected by the First Amendment, reflecting the faith of our founders that the people can take all that in and still make good decisions.

What the law is trying to stop is the growing tactic of mounting attacks on candidates for public office without the electorate having a clue who is behind them. That happened in Utah, as big bucks funneled anonymously from the payday loan industry were used to bring down political opponents of that business and of their fair-haired boy, the now-disgraced former Attorney General John Swallow.

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If the people who now fund such campaigns want to stand up in front of God and everybody and make their case, nobody would dream of stopping them.

They just have to have the guts to let everybody know what they are doing. And run the risks that go with the rough and tumble of real free speech.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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