Ellen Weaver

Protecting Free Speech in the Palmetto State

May 22, 2015

Ellen Weaver

When making a small contribution to a non-profit political action group, Erica – a private citizen – just wanted to support reforms that she thought would lead to a better quality education for the children in her community.  Little did she know that her information would be published online, a political blogger would use that information to find her on Facebook, take photos of her children posted in her personal account and publish them, along with her home address and the location of her children’s school.  Her family was subsequently inundated with threatening Facebook messages and emails…to the point that they considered moving to a new school district to protect the safety and security of their children.

Think this is an isolated case?  Unfortunately, it’s not.  Across America, everyday citizens have been fired, had their businesses boycotted and been forced to register with the government in order to exercise their right to free speech.  In the particularly egregious “John Doe” case in Wisconsin, some families even had their homes raided by police SWAT teams for their support of the policies of Governor Scott Walker.

This week, the South Carolina Policy Council (SCPC) highlighted this important issue in a public debate held on the campus of USC.  The event called attention to ethics legislation currently sitting before the South Carolina General Assembly that goes well beyond the important function of protecting the integrity of elections to potentially chilling “all communications critical of public officials during a broad window before an election.”

While acknowledging that there is a strong public desire for politicians and their actions to be transparently accountable to the public, SCPC President Ashley Landess drew a bright line between this idea and the right of citizens to not have to register their personal giving with the government, noting that, “Transparency is for government, privacy is for citizens.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The good news for South Carolina citizens: the U.S. Supreme Court has already clearly ruled to protect them in this matter.  The case? NAACP v. Alabama, which in 1958 was decided in favor of the plaintiff, Jeffery D. who feared that the disclosure of $100 that he donated to the NAACP would subject him and his family to harassment and danger by local law enforcement and pro-segregation extremists.  The Court agreed, ruling that the privacy of donors is an essential component of both free speech and the right to assembly.

So the question before South Carolina: will we mire our state in a federal court case, which is sure to result if our lawmakers try to quash the ability of citizens to donate privately to causes they support?  For the sake of free speech and fiscal responsibility, we certainly hope not.  And beyond that, we hope that our lawmakers will consider legislation to affirmatively protect and promote the right of free speech in the Palmetto State.

Every American – whatever their belief or political persuasion – has the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment, intimidation or invasion of their personal privacy.  We’re proud to stand with the South Carolina Policy Council in defense of this fundamental freedom.