LPAC

FEC Chairman Talks 'Dark Money' and the Fine Line Between Free Speech and Censorship

FEC Chairman Lee Goodman says the dark money debate is nothing more than an effort to regulate speech using government power.

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"I'm from the Federal Election Commission, and I'm here to help," said Lee E. Goodman upon taking the stage at the 2014 Liberty Political Action Conference (LPAC). It was a joke, but Goodman may actually be a rare libertarian ally in the federal government. Since taking office in 2013, he's taken a strict stance in favor of free speech. 

Light Brigading/Flickr

"It's good for people to hear more points of view," said Goodman, a former private-practice election lawyer. "It's good for democratic discourse. And it leads to more competitive policies." Yet all over the place, Goodman sees free speech under attack. 

"Look at college campues today, where political correctness has run amok," said Goodman. Banishing speech "is far easier than meeting the merits of a concept or a speaker." And it's also a prevalent pursuit from federal agencies, including the Federal Election Commission (FEC). 

Goodman is one of three Republican members of the agency; the other three are Democrats. This even split is required by law, though with four votes required for any official action it regularly leads to deadlock. Since Goodman took office about a year ago, a number of issues have divided the members down party lines. ("A 3-to-3 split comes close to official commission policy," noted The New York Times in August.)

"Many of the cases we get are fairly close calls on subtle legal principles," Goodman told the crowd at LPAC. His "biggest insight" since taking office is that "the line between free speech and censorship is a very fine and fragile and delicate line."

The most divisive issue so far has been related to so-called "dark money" in elections. Tax-exempt organizations that donate to political campaigns and causes don't have to disclose their donor or membership lists to the FEC if the group's major or "primary purpose" is not to influence election results. But now some on the left want to include issue advocacy among the purposes for which donor disclosure is required. FEC members have been deadlocked down partisan lines on making the regulatory change. 

"The courts have told us we have no jurisdiction over issue advocacy, so you cannot count it toward an organization's major purpose to bootstrap regulatory jurisdiction," said Goodman. "An issue advocacy organization does not have to surrender its associational freedoms, including the confidentiality of its members and donors, just because it spends $1,000 to exercise its free-speech rights." 

In 2012, the FEC found 3 to 4 percent of that year's election expenditures came from groups that weren't required to disclose their donors—including about $7 million spent by Planned Parenthood. "I daresay that the membership and donors of Planned Parenthood would be highly sensitive to disclosure," said Goodman, "and it happens on the right on social issues too."

"When you hear the dark money debate, I want you to understand it in context," Goodman continued. "It is an effort by those who want to regulate speech more to alter the playing field of speech and ban speech using govenment power, and nothing more."

Another divisive issue at the FEC has been Bitcoin. The FEC has endorsed various sorts of in kind contributions, including art, computers, and securities, and "there's nothing fundamentally or inherently different about Bitcoin," said Goodman. Yet the Democratic FEC members don't see it that way. They endorsed Bitcoin donations, but only up to $100. A 3-3 vote has resulted in a deadlock that effectively allows groups to receive Bitcoin donations up to the full $2,600 per-election donation limit. 

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  1. Good thing libertarians can rely on the left as allies on social issues!

    1. This is money. It’s an economic issue. Which is why there is no real difference between “economic freedom” and “social freedom.” Freedom is freedom. And governments hate it.

      1. Well governments can give and take away freedoms just as easily.

  2. …”Yet the Democratic FEC members don’t see it that way. They endorsed Bitcoin donations, but only up to $100.”…

    The party of, uh, mythology.

  3. I’d love to see the video of somebody asking those “Money corrupts/Money =/= speech” protestors how much their signs and projector cost.

    1. It’s not as funny as you think it will be. These experts in cognitive dissonance just dismiss that sort of threat to their ideology with “That’s different”.

    2. What a stupid post. So, you are in favor of bribery? You don’t think money corrupts? If money=speech than bribery must be speech too. I use my money to corrupt all of the time…it’s great to be rich!!! But just because it’s great for me doesn’t mean it’s good for society. Come on, what a bunch of shit for brains Uncle fuckers in here.

  4. If Libertarians can just punish Republicans enough to get them out of power and cause them to disavow their evil ways, things will work out great. It is not like the Democrats haven’t gone full on fascist and won’t completely shut down all dissent if they ever had the power.

    1. We should keep rewarding both of them by making sure the government split, regardless of which way it swings is around 51/49.

    2. Do you have an alternate suggestion? Or just a straw man? Rand Paul seems to be a favorite around here, and he is officially a Republican. Or should we just submit and vote 100% GOP?

      1. …did you seriously employ that straw man in the last sentence? Holy shit, dude, that’s some Tony-tier cognitive dissonance.

  5. Money is an evil totem. The more you keep in your hand, the further the corruption spreads.

    Cast it out, ye noble men! Cast out your money (and give it to me).

  6. Goodman is one of three Republican members of the agency; the other three are Democrats. This even split is required by law,

    Because there are

    1. *sigh*

      Trying again…

      Goodman is one of three Republican members of the agency; the other three are Democrats. This even split is required by law,

      Because there are no other choices. It’s like NPR wrote the law.

      1. Unless you count “socialist” for Bernie Sanders, there are no other choices, at least in Congress.

        Why would you require them to put a member of a party that didn’t hold any seats in Congress on the commission? And if you did, what is so special about Libertarians? What about the Communists and the LaRouchees, don’t they get a seat too?

        1. I suppose if the law is restricted to party members holding seats in congress, then that’s a fair point. But if it’s just an arbitrary law that says “we need equal representation across the political spectrum” it’s pretty retarded and cuts to the core of how restricting speech is an entirely political endeavor.

        2. What about the Communists and the LaRouchees, don’t they get a seat too?

          Yes. And the Constitution, Green, Fascist, and any other party that has ever been recognized on a ballot. And in order for any restrictions to pass, they have to get 100% support from the committee.

        3. Umm, maybe because this commission has the effective power to prevent other parties from becoming competitive in elections? And if membership is restricted to two parties they might collude to make sure only those two parties can be competitive?

          1. Nah, that could never happen.

  7. The FEC has endorsed various sorts of in kind contributions, including art, computers, and securities, and “there’s nothing fundamentally or inherently different about Bitcoin,”

    You forgot speech. Speech is an in-kind contribution. Why will no one ever talk about this when we have this discussion on money in politics? Why? This is the issue that no progressive ever discusses or wants to discuss. These campaign finance laws BAN SPEECH EXPLICITLY. We don’t need to nuance the fuck out of this conversation with money != speech. Just discuss how speech == money, and you’ve cut to the core of the issue.

  8. Um…

    Limit government, not speech.

    (I’m insane!)

    1. *sends The Men With the Straightjacket To Secure Francisco d’A*

      1. Remember when people actually wanted to be free?

        1. I’m thinking….really, really hard…

          I know I still want to be free? You, too? Cool! good enough! Hang* the rest of them!

          *meaning in the “British slang” sense, but some progs probably think “LITERALLY!”

          1. Tony prefers the firing squad.

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