No ‘free speech’ moral high ground for groups’ opposition to Prop 211

Guest Opinion//May 30, 2023

dark money, Proposition 211, Right to Know Act, Americans for Prosperity

With attempts by one set of opponents already rebuffed, the state's top Republican lawmakers are making their own bid to quash a new state law designed to shine a light on "dark money.'' In a new court filing, Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma contend that Proposition 211 infringes on the constitutional right of the Legislature to make laws. Now they want Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank Moskowitz to override what voters approved just last year. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Law School)

No ‘free speech’ moral high ground for groups’ opposition to Prop 211

Guest Opinion//May 30, 2023

Words matter. Motives matter.

I am an avid supporter of Proposition 211, the “Anti-Dark Money” disclosure initiative approved by almost three-quarters of voters in last year’s election. I believe that Prop. 211—now titled the Right to Know Act — will promote more honest and open political communication (speech) in the public arena. Maybe that is too hopeful. At least we will know more about the “why” of veiled communications by knowing the “who”—the proponents and their motives.

Recently, Americans for Prosperity trumpeted that they are filing a federal lawsuit, in addition to a prior Arizona state lawsuit, to block Prop 211 to “Restore Free Speech.” The painful irony of this announcement should not elude us. Americans for Prosperity is one of the largest funded “Dark Money” groups operating in Arizona. It was formed as an implementer group by the Koch network to subtly shift public perceptions and change laws for the benefit of its funders. Historically, the Koch network of mega donors (and Americans for Prosperity) has preferred to fly under the radar, cloaking its funders, obfuscating its objectives, and restricting any scrutiny from the press or the public. Their communications—couched in attractive tested sound bites and attack ads–are better labelled “Manipulative Speech,” rather than “Free Speech.”

dark money, Prop 211, Right to Know Act, campaigns,
Craig Hazeltine

Let’s think clearly. “Free Speech” does not apply to anonymous or unchallengeable words. We love Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s imagined Voltaire saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” The implication is that we know the person saying it, and hopefully, will come to understand why they are saying it. George Berkeley posited the famous Zen riddle: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It is a fun exploration of communication, conveying the need for a known sender and receiver.

“Free Speech” does not apply to unbridled or unconstrained words. As a nation, we have checks and restraints on communication. We have libel and slander laws to stop defamation. I recall my mother’s stern words, “If you don’t have something positive to say, keep your mouth shut.”

“Free Speech” does not apply to manipulative, deceptive, or deceiving words. We have anti-fraud laws to stamp out deceit and defrauding. As a society we have (or used to have) a moral and ethical base of truth telling, of honest dealings, of positive constructive words.

The essence of free speech—and its importance to democracy—is to ensure that the powerful do not stifle or overrun the input of other voices.

Now we have the powerful working overtime to portray themselves as the suppressed victims—all in an effort to maintain their huge megaphones of manipulative messaging.

The Arizona Capitol Times’ “Morning Scoop” program is hosting a panel discussion sponsored by People United for Privacy, discussing the topic: A MODEL FOR OTHER STATES OR A THREAT TO FREE SPEECH? What is People United for Privacy (PUFP)? It is not a neutral public policy group. It is an interpretation group formed and funded by “Dark Money” supporters to lobby legislators, suggest model legislation, promote tactics to work against discloser initiatives, and through its sister foundation, assist in filing lawsuits to block disclosure laws like Prop. 211.

In support of its mission, PUFP is applying a diversion spin on free speech to obscure their true objective of clawing back their extremely well-funded and organized “Manipulative Speech” machines. The Spin is telegraphed in their name. They are attempting to conflate privacy and free speech. They are pretending to represent “average” folks who think they are supporting a non-profit. They are attempting to divert attention by deceptively reframing the question–manipulative messaging to protect “Manipulative Speech.”

If mega political donors really want privacy, let them refrain from buying influence and retreat behind their estate walls. If they truly want to influence the social environment for the greater public good, let them engage in open public debate, owning their words, valuing others’ concerns and winning over hearts and minds with truthful perspective.

Is Prop. 211 a “Threat to Free Speech?” Just the opposite. Words matter. Motives matter.

Craig Hazeltine is an Arizona native and a retired home renovation professional in Scottsdale.