Hugh Leatherman tried this last session and is trying it again. S255 is a bill that would force citizens and organizations like the Spartanburg Tea Party, who focus on issues, to register with the government as if they were campaign or election entities.
In its present form, S.255, sponsored by Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), would substantially encroach on South Carolinians’ right to criticize politicians. The bill would require groups engaging in “election communication” – broadly defined as communication that supports or opposes a candidate, ballot initiative, or influences an election – to disclose not only their top donors but also the donors’ mailing address, occupation, and employer. Groups that aren’t currently required to disclose their donors, moreover, would face tougher reporting requirements at the state level than full-on political action committees that are directly involved in elections. Unlike other recent attempts to regulate free speech, which would have applied only in the run-up to an election (30 days before a primary election, 60 days before a general), Sen. Leatherman’s bill would apply all year round.
The courts have drawn a very clear line between protected political speech and political speech that “expressly advocate[s] the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” As the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in Buckley v. Valeo, government’s interest in regulating political speech is related exclusively to corruption – defining “corruption” as large contributions “given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders.”
S.255 wouldn’t protect the general public from the quid pro quo concern, and it would only protect politicians from criticism – the same politicians, incidentally, who have appointment power on the State Ethics Commission, the agency tasked with interpreting the langue of this bill.
An effort to require so-called “dark money” political groups to reveal their donors hit a snag Tuesday when right-leaning advocacy groups asserted it would discourage S.C. residents from criticizing politicians.
A state Senate panel put off voting on the bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, after two hours of testimony – most of it from groups who said the Florence Republican’s proposal would set up their donors for retaliation.
“I’m prepared to accept the consequences of being out in public,” said Talbert Black Jr., president of S.C. Campaign for Liberty. “But there are many people who care deeply about issues in this state but don’t want their names out there, who fear for their jobs, who fear for their livelihood. … They should not be subject to that retaliation and intimidation.”
So-called “dark money” groups use donated money to push political issues or defeat candidates during elections but do not reveal the identities of their donors.
Critics say that means voters do not know the agenda or motives of the donors.But advocacy groups — including the Concerned Veterans for America, another Koch brothers-backed group and an AFP affiliate — contend Leatherman’s bill is unconstitutional and unfairly targets groups that primarily focus on legislative issues, not elections.