Conservative advocacy group’s “news service” questions non-profits’ First Amendment rights

After the November 2011 election, a prominent Maine conservative advocacy group announced that it was starting a state-wide, secretly financed “news service” that would take a clearly ideological position.

At the time, I considered the impact of ideologically delineated sources of information on Maine’s political culture and asked if “Maine is the test case for a larger national effort which would feature similar state operations elsewhere.”

Regarding its initial work, Al Diamon writes, “The debut offerings were short on scoops and long on ideology, with a distinct right-wing slant to most of the postings.”

Now, in the wake of Governor LePage’s proposed cuts to human services, including such efforts as health care for the working poor, assisted living for the elderly and disabled, and Head Start education for children, the “news service” questions the right to petition government.

The author of the piece points to what he calls, “the specter of a serious conflict of interest.”

To this writer, it is problematic for groups receiving funds from government to speak up when cuts are proposed, to pay its managers wages appropriate to their jobs (although clearly less than what they would receive if they did such jobs in for-profit groups) , and to organize people affected by those cuts.

It is presented as particularly insidious to transport people to speak to the Maine Legislature.  For example, the reader is told that in calls organizing a response to proposed public policy:

During the calls, a strategy for the transportation of social services recipients was even discussed, with a Head Start advocate offering to bring as many as 50 participants to the state house for the budget hearings.

What can you even say about this sort of thing?

1. It is rather remarkable for a group that operates by using its First Amendment rights to question others’ use of those same fundamental rights; in particular, the right to petition government.

2. Nonprofits have the right to petition government and to organize people to do so. There is no indication that the writer understands the rules governing nonprofits’ activities of this sort.

3. It is very common for groups to use these First Amendment rights. Businesses receiving government contracts regularly hire people to represent them and organize people to contact government officials.

Indeed, the current Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, previously worked as a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association.

Businesses receiving government contracts spend a good deal more than non-profits on their activities and pay their lobbyists and managers a lot more than non-profits.

4. This questioning of the right to petition government comes on the heels of the sponsoring organization of this “news service” working to prevent Maine people from being able to register to vote on election day, thus restricting their access to another fundamental right of citizens.

As part of that discussion, some opponents of election day registration (a 38 year long practice that was retained by the Maine people by a 60-40 landslide) were similarly concerned about citizens being helped to exercise their rights via people providing them transportation.

5. Finally, one wonders what sort of standard the writer of the piece would propose for lobbying. Would only those who are not affected by public policy be allowed to lobby and to organize others? That would truly be something new in American democracy — and surely unconstitutional.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.