The Intersection of Climate Policy and the First Amendment
One of the greatest risks to free speech today is the recent phenomenon of state attorneys general attempting to intimidate and silence groups that dare espouse “unacceptable” positions on matters of public policy.
Perhaps the most noteworthy instance occurred in April of this year when U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker served a subpoena on the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), demanding a decade’s worth of documents related to the organization’s work on climate change policy. However, the subpoena went beyond just internal policy deliberations to also include private donor information.
It turns out that the decision to subpoena CEI was part of a larger scheme cooked up by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and a handful of other states attorneys general who refer to themselves as “AGs United For Clean Power.” Rather than address climate change through the typical legislative or regulatory processes, Schneiderman, Walker and their colleagues threatened to use criminal investigations and possible charges in order to help achieve their policy preferences.
Ironically, under federal law, groups of individuals who “conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person…in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution…shall be fined…or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.” An argument could easily be made that what these attorneys general have done to date is a crime in and of itself. Like anyone else, if an attorney general wants to see certain policies to address climate change implemented, they should do so through the appropriate channels and not resort to bullying or intimidation tactics.
Activists, donors, and partners should also be concerned about the appalling precedent that would be set if CEI were forced to turn over their donor rolls. Such a demand would likely run counter to existing case law, but what would stop other state agents from seeking donor information from left-leaning organizations? Ultimately, Americans of all ideologies have the right to support any cause or group of their choosing without being intimidated or subject to harassment.
Several weeks after issuing the subpoena against CEI, Walker announced that he was withdrawing it; however, the think tank has announced that they will continue to pursue sanctions against the attorney general. If government agents can threaten to silence dissenters, individuals would live in constant fear of espousing their sincerely held political beliefs. Being able to debate and disagree is a fundamental value that is necessary for a healthy and functioning republican form of government. Silencing critics via threatening tactics is horribly antagonistic to the fabric of American society. All Americans should unite behind the concept that all individuals have a right to express their opinions, even if they differ from those who are public servants.