Defending Free Speech

Letter from the president

Ten years ago, we achieved a major First-Amendment legal victory over the Michigan Education Association.

In 2001, the MEA’s then-president Luigi Battaglieri told reporters, “Frankly, I admire what they [the Mackinac Center] have done,” referring to our ability to put our research into lawmakers’ hands. Then he sued us after we quoted him in news and fundraising letters. He demanded that we give the union our mailing lists and stop repeating his news conference remarks.

The MEA’s tack mimicked that of southern segregationists in the 1950s, who demanded that the NAACP reveal its membership lists so that members could more easily be identified, harassed and intimidated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this would be a bad idea, and that the NAACP’s members had a right to privacy.

In 2004, a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals supported this reasoning by unanimous rule: The union was not entitled to our mailing lists, nor could it prevent us from repeating its president’s public pronouncements.

Those rulings stand, but our opponents are trying new ways to silence us.

  • Michigan Congressman Sander Levin formally asked the IRS to investigate the Mackinac Center for imagined lobbying misdeeds. Later, we learned that government officials had used the IRS at the same time to obstruct groups devoted to free markets. No journalist covering Rep. Levin’s request asked if he routinely requests IRS investigations, or if he singled us out.

  • The Left recently popularized the term “dark money” to refer to private, voluntary contributions to “social welfare” and charitable groups that promote ideas they believe will improve society. Multiple news outlets reliably repeated the phrase, making noble citizen generosity sound sinister.

  • New IRS rules would redefine as “political” certain nonpartisan speech and activities routinely pursued by 501(c)(4) tax-designated groups. The change would likely reduce support for citizen engagement and education. While the Mackinac Center isn’t one of those groups, I believe our kind of organization may be the next target.

  • Baseless accusations are now chronic. Charges of “tax fraud” and illegal lobbying too often need no substantiation, but are repeated by professional journalists.

  • Government officials undertook secret investigations against citizens engaged in routine political activity in favor of important labor and fiscal reforms in Wisconsin. (Our friend Eric O’Keefe, a man who has aided good reforms in Michigan and elsewhere, risks retaliation by fighting back, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported.)

  • New progressive groups launched simultaneous, multi-state attacks on think tanks, including the Mackinac Center. Their purpose? To delegitimize activities such as presenting economic research to policymakers. They issued sloppy, plagiarism-ridden attacks on us. Yet outlet after outlet credulously republished the stolen words and ideas as original.

All of this has one, simple purpose: Silence us by scaring away supporters and making people doubt our credibility.

They try to squelch our voice while their friends compel millions of workers to fund unions’ political speech. (Our labor policy work helps to correct that injustice.)

Defending free speech wasn’t one of the original main purposes of the Mackinac Center, but it’s become a cost of doing business.