Op-ed: Disclosure bill would chill free speech

As seen in The State

By Steven Diaz

As a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, I sacrificed to defend American freedoms and democratic values across the world. I never thought I’d have to defend those same freedoms against my own state government.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman recently filed S.255, which I believe could have a chilling effect on our First Amendment right to free speech. The legislation essentially requires every nonprofit organization that educates citizens during elections about the policy positions of their elected representatives to give the government the name and address of supporters who contribute $1,000 or more.

Importantly, the law would apply not only to political organizations but also to nonprofit organizations such as Concerned Veterans for America, for which I volunteer, which educates citizens about important policy issues affecting veterans.

If enacted, this law would undermine the privacy of South Carolinians and have a chilling effect on free speech.

“Disclosure laws” long have been used to intimidate private citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as much dating back to the civil rights era. In 1958, the Court held the NAACP did not have to give the government a list of supporters, as doing so would potentially expose them to harassment and violence.

More recent examples abound of personal information being used to suppress free speech, e.g., the IRS scandal that targeted individuals and organizations based on their political beliefs.

At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, whistleblowers who have spoken out about the dangerous conditions and treatment of American heroes at VA facilities have been retaliated against just for speaking up.

No one should ever face threats, intimidation or violence for supporting a position on controversial issues. Yet that’s what S.255 would invite in our state.

It is the duty of lawmakers like Sen. Leatherman to protect individual privacy and our First Amendment right to free speech. Where he and others abrogate that duty, veterans like myself and thousands of others across the state stand ready to step in.