Hyperbole in political discourse is as old as the sun, but state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, really outdid himself when accusing Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens of “threaten(ing) the integrity of our republic.” Greitens’ crime? Supporting free speech.
Schaaf’s over-the-top comments come from the governor’s decision to protect the right of a nonprofit organization not to disclose its supporters.
As a veteran who proudly served our country to protect our freedoms — including the right to express my opinions free of intimidation and harassment — it pains me to see this recklessness coming from our elected officials who should know that free speech, including anonymous speech, is indispensable to a free society like ours.
Beginning with our Founding Fathers — including Benjamin Franklin, who said “freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government” — to protecting the anonymity of the authors of the Federalist Papers, our country has a long history protecting our right to free speech.
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The right of an organization to protect the privacy of its supporters was affirmed in the landmark 1958 Supreme Court decision that declared a “vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s association.” By rendering this decision, the highest court in the land ruled in favor of protecting the identity of members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in its fight against segregation. The decision enabled the NAACP to organize and raise funds without exposing its supporters to intimidation and harassment.
We are a better country because of what the court decided nearly 60 years ago and for the courage of our Founding Fathers to fight to enshrine these rights into law. Yet even today many Americans face harassment and abuse because they exercise their right to free speech.
Take, for example, Brandon Coleman, who spoke out about gross mistreatment and abuses taking place in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Coleman, a former addiction therapist at the Phoenix VA health center, was one VA employee who blew the whistle on his superiors about conditions and practices that jeopardized the health and safety of veterans. The result of his courageous efforts was harassment and a gag order issued against him by his own government. Fortunately for Coleman, the gag order was lifted.
In 2014, Missourians overwhelmingly supported a measure that demonstrates the value they place on the importance of privacy. Voters passed a constitutional amendment protecting electronic privacy, becoming the first state in the nation to explicitly protect electronic communications and data from warrantless search and seizure. The same principle should apply to citizens who wish to contribute privately to nonprofits that support causes they believe in. Citizens deserve to have their speech and their privacy protected.
Schaaf and others claim that they are looking out for Missourians by demanding nonprofit groups disclose their supporters. But by limiting free speech, it will only make it more difficult to hold our elected officials accountable and give citizens a voice in shaping public policy.
Greitens is right to protect a citizen’s ability to privately contribute to a nonprofit, ensuring that Missourians are not left open to harassment and intimidation by the government or their fellow citizens.
It would be a shame to turn our backs on the proud American tradition of protecting our right to free speech.
President Ronald Reagan was right when he said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It requires constant vigilance. I put my life on the line to protect these freedoms. Now it’s up to all of us to make sure they are around for the next generation.
Dan Caldwell is the policy director of Concerned Veterans for America, a 501(c)(4) veterans advocacy nonprofit.