When citizens can’t speak out or have a say in how their country is run, government power grows. In the worst cases, it grows until it is absolute, held through force and fear. In the nightly news, we are bombarded with images of the devastation wrought by the rise and fall of dictators around the world.
Veterans who have experienced those consequences firsthand and Americans who care deeply about our nation’s future are pained to see American politicians trying to undo our long tradition of free speech. In New Mexico, for example, state legislators have been trying to enact laws that place new restrictions on citizens’ freedom of speech and association. Most recently, this reared its ugly head in the form of SB 96.
The bill is dead and New Mexicans have dodged a bullet – for now.
If such a bill were ever signed into law, it would require supporters of some organizations and civic groups – even veterans’ groups such as mine – to give the government their personal information. So long as you donate a small amount of money to essentially any group that speaks out about a ballot initiative or a public official, your name, address and telephone number would become a matter of public record.
In effect, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and her successors would curate a registry of politically engaged citizens. The state would have full knowledge of which issues matter to you and which causes you choose to champion. And if there’s anybody who could use that information against you, rest assured they will.
This is an invitation for intimidation and abuse of power. It’s well-known that major government agencies are susceptible to corruption. Nobody can forget the IRS scandal that erupted several years ago, when it was found that federal tax collectors acted on bias to determine which organizations and civic groups to target for audits. What guarantee do New Mexicans have that their state government will not stoop to the same practices?
And it’s not just the fear of intimidation from government officials. Your information would be publicly available to anyone who might disagree with your point of view. It’s why the Supreme Court ruled in NAACP v. Alabama – approaching its 60th anniversary next year – that the government may not force civic groups to turn over their lists of supporters when doing so would subject them to intimidation, harassment and even violence.
What the Supreme Court found back then is no less true now. Besides, New Mexico already has rules in place to protect the integrity of political life. The Campaign Reporting Act, passed in 1978, provides all the tools the state needs to investigate fraud or corruption in elections and other political activity.
Politics and civic life have a major impact on New Mexicans, and these citizens deserve a chance to weigh in and have their voices heard. SB 96 and bills like it would silence many of these voices. There’s no justification for that.
Gov. Susana Martinez wisely stood up against these attacks on New Mexicans’ First Amendment rights. Most recently, she vetoed SB 96, stopping it in its tracks. If politicians try to push similar legislation in the current special session, she should continue to hold fast – as should principled legislators who respect freedom of speech.
Over 170,000 veterans live in New Mexico, and many of them have experienced the aftermath of oppression in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. If a handful of state politicians don’t understand the importance of free speech, rest assured: Those veterans certainly do.