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Intimidation, Threats Take Place of Civil Discourse

Protesters taking to the extreme against their opponents

Last week, Heartland Institute CEO Joe Bast said in a letter on the organization's website that donors to Heartland in the past two years have been the subject of hate mail, letter-writing and telephone campaigns, and online petitions demanding that they stop funding the think tank.

The letter highlighted an emerging strategy of some individuals and groups who think that winning the debate isn’t the goal — instead the endgame is putting the other side out of business.

The United States Supreme Court ruled that people's privacy is protected when they join private groups. While discussing the 1958 Supreme Court case NAACP vs. Alabama, Anita L. Allen, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, “When Americans voluntarily join a private peaceful political, religious or social association, even an unpopular, controversial one, they are entitled to as much confidentiality as to their names and addresses as the association chooses to confer. The Court ruled that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment confers to each individual, rights of free speech and free association. These are rights protected from federal violation by the First Amendment and from state violation by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” 

But more than 50 years later, both sides of the political spectrum are saying it is OK to target corporations, donors and individuals for their involvement with private non-profits.

Liberal commentators have celebrated campaigns whose goals are to cut off the funding of organizations with different political viewpoints.

In his column, “Don’t Just Pressure ALEC’s Sponsors, Name and Shame ALEC Legislators,” John Nichols of The Nation rejoiced that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Kraft Foods had reportedly ended financial support of the American Legislative Exchange Council. But Nichols wrote that wasn’t enough. They had to pressure the legislators who had joined ALEC.

After a controversial Heartland Institute billboard stated that The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski believed in global warming, Author Shawn Lawrence Otto listed the contact information of more than a dozen corporations that supported The Heartland Institute and asked readers to contact them.

“If a corporate donor is making a donation to influence the public debate, I do agree that they should be transparent about it,” Otto wrote in an email. “Usually donors want to be publicly recognized. In a nonprofit that seeks to influence the public policy dialogue, it should be a requirement. Anonymity of donors is corrosive to open, transparent democratic discourse because it is participation without responsibility, and that is the crux of this discussion it seems to me. ... But if you are a donor to an organization that is seeking to influence the public dialogue in a way that affects my life, I have a right to know who you are, and you have a responsibility to be transparent about your efforts to change policy to suit your needs."

In February, global warming advocate Peter Gleick, who was executive director of the Pacific Institute, admitted that he stole documents from the Heartland Institute that included information about donors and allies. Gleick released that information to opponents of The Heartland Institute.

Greenpeace’s Kert Davies said his organization used Gleick’s information and sent letters to universities alerting them that some of their professors were working with The Heartland Institute. He said Greenpeace has also worked at getting corporations to disassociate with The Heartland Institute. Davies said Greenpeace didn’t contact those they considered “private donors.”

Jim Lakely, spokesman for The Heartland Institute, said it seems “left wing” opponents are now upping the ante.

“They don't want to engage in a debate over policy or the direction of the country,” Lakely said. “They want to destroy everyone who holds a different opinion … it chills free speech, something liberals and left-wing groups pretend to cherish. We should be debating issues, not trying to destroy perceived ‘enemies.’ ”

But going after sponsors and associates isn’t one-sided.

Earlier this month, Michigan State Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, asked Sunshine Review editor Kristin McMurray why the organization, which is dedicated to state and local government transparency, didn’t release the names of its donors, calling it “hypocritical.” Rep. Jacobsen later said he didn’t know that Sunshine Review was a non-profit that didn’t receive any public funds and that if he had known he probably wouldn’t have said anything.

Mike Barnhart, president of the Sunshine Review, said transparency has become a “bastardized” term.

“Transparency is not about private responsibility to share private investing or private contributions or anything you want to do with your money,” Barnhart said. “Donor issues or donor lists aren’t transparency issues. Those are First Amendment and privacy issues.”

Barnhart said transparency now is being used  “to intimidate and bludgeon, to call into question the ethics of people they simply disagree with in the political process.”

In 2010, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., released the names of 17 scientists who were involved in the Climate Research Unit’s "Climategate" scandal. A move ABC’s World News Weekend Anchor Dan Harris denounced as McCarthyism.

Marc Morano, who runs the anti-global warming website Climate Depot, said he posted the public emails of many of the Climategate scientists — many of which worked at public universities — in the headlines of his stories.

“I never ‘revealed’ any email addresses or urged people to write in,” Morano said in an email. “All affiliations are fair game for any professor when he takes a stand on hot button issues of the day.”

But some of the issues have become so hot, they raised the possibility of violence.

When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy put in a Freedom of Information Act request looking for any mention of “Rachel Maddow” in emails for professors at various state universities, it sparked an outrage among liberals.

Laura Campbell admitted April 18 in an Illinois court that she left numerous messages on Mackinac Center voice mail threatening to kill “all of you” and “bomb you.” Campbell agreed to a defer prosecution for two years if she completes conditions of a pre-trial diversion program.

Greenpeace's Davies said some of the Climategate scientists have also received death threats and attacks.

“You have to be very careful. There are definitely fringe elements in this country who are not nice people,” he said. “It’s way out of hand the way our society is communicating right now. We long for a more civil discourse. The attempt to have that seems impossible now. Nobody is talking to each other anymore.”

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See also:

How CapCon Uses Transparency Laws to Hold Government Accountable

Politician Who Attacked Government Transparency Groups Gets 'Bitten Back'

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