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Dan Calabrese: GOP half-right on campaign finance; Issue donors should be named

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If you believe that spending money on campaigns is a form of political speech — and it’s pretty disingenuous not to — then there is only one possible criticism of the bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed this week that doubles the amount Michigan contributors can give to candidates. That is to argue, that there should be no limits at all.

Lawmakers have this quaint notion that they can define fairness in the transfer of money from private citizens to political candidates.

By limiting individuals’ ability to contribute, they think they can limit individuals’ influence on the process, and they think that’s a good thing. They have plenty of influence by virtue of their position as legislators, so it’s all well and good for them to limit the influence of others as long as nothing is going to happen to theirs.

Be that as it may, doubling the allowable amount is better than leaving it as it was. A less restrictive limit is the next best thing to no limit at all.

But where did people get the idea that freedom of speech depends on the anonymity of the speaker? Even as the new law raises the contribution limit, it leaves in place protections against disclosing the names of issue ad donors on the grounds that disclosing their names might make them less likely to contribute. And this, we’re told, would be a way of discouraging free speech.

Um. No.

The purpose of the First Amendment is to guarantee that any citizen can express any opinion — no matter what it is, and no matter how it is expressed — and need not fear prosecution, persecution or any other action by the government in response to it.

So you can stand on the street corner and denounce the policies of the president, the governor, the mayor, and have nothing to fear. You can go on TV, on the radio, on the Internet, in print ,  and say what’s on your mind. It’s your right.

Now, if you’re afraid to be associated with whatever opinion you’re expressing, then you have the right not to express it. That’s perfectly fine. But what the First Amendment does not guarantee is that you can express your opinion without anyone knowing it’s you. 

You’re already guaranteed freedom from prosecution. That’s what makes your speech free. If you fear some other repercussions or recriminations — from business associates, neighbors, whoever — then that’s your problem.

Case in point: In 2012, a lot of people saw ads demanding that the state should “let the people decide” before it built another Detroit/Windsor bridge. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. But you might have been interested to know that the ads were paid for by the guy who owns the Detroit/Windsor bridge that’s already there, and that he wanted the exclusive right to build any new ones.

Then again, maybe someone wants to fund an issue ad just because he or she really cares about the issue. Nothing wrong with that. All you have to do is attach your name to the ad you paid for, same as I attach my name to this column. I exercising my First Amendment rights by writing this column, just as The Detroit News is exercising its First Amendment rights in publishing it. And you know exactly who we both are. And because of the First Amendment, we have nothing to fear.

Those paying for issue ads have the same protection, so they don’t need anonymity. Spend what you want and tell us who you are. That way everyone’s freedom is protected.

Dan Calabrese
Dan Calabrese is editor-in-chief of HermanCain.com, the multimedia site owned by former presidential candidate Herman Cain. In addition, he is an accomplished business and trade journalist - and is the author of The Royal Oak Series of Spiritual Thrillers, a three-part series of novels set in Royal Oak, and available for purchase at www.dancalabresebooks.com. Dan lives in Grand Rapids.