On a variety of fronts it seems like American society is showing some significant foundational cracks, if not actively crumbling around us. Sadly, this is not a unique lament. One such event was a recent Washington Post piece lashing out at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This piece demonstrated a remarkable disdain for freedom and the rights of those with views contrary to most Washington mavens.
By way of background, and to summarize the Post’s story, the Competitive Enterprise Institute is a free-market think tank that spends its time, amongst other things, working to protect Americans from many of the progressive policy solutions associated with climate change. A CEI staff member led President Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency and, so the piece claims, CEI is responsible for America’s exit from the Paris Climate Accord. The Post report highlights all of this in a pearl-clutching tone and ties a bow on the piece by linking CEI’s work to funding from conservative, energy-based sources and at least implies that their efforts may be in violation of IRS lobbying rules.
Maybe not much new in the piece, but it’s remarkable that one of America’s leading news outlets would so brazenly attack free speech.
The very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to “petition the Government for the redress of grievances” but the entire Washington Post article seemingly calls into question this fundamental right. Agree with CEI on climate change or not, but CEI’s right to engage in the policy debate is the same right enjoyed by every Kansan, and American. To call into question the right of CEI to talk about climate change is to call into question the right of a mom to ask that her special needs child receive the services they need or for an NFL player to kneel during the National Anthem. We may not agree with someone’s particular opinion but they certainly have the constitutional right to offer it.
Aaron Sorkin helped define politics in the 1990s with The American President and The West Wing and a gauzy, sentimental view of politics. I wonder how Sorkin’s left-of-center protagonists would feel about the tone found in The Post? The liberal president of The American President has a famous oration in which he says, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours!”
The Post did not explicitly propose that CEI should not be allowed to speak, but their tone did suggest concern about how CEI uses that right. This stance is not altogether dissimilar from the hecklers veto used to no-platform speakers on college campuses. The vision of America, modernized by Sorkin’s work, indicates a complicated tapestry of rights and responsibilities that buoy our American experiment in self-government. To pull at one thread in the tapestry risks, if not a complete unraveling, a hole that leaves the effort in ruin. Some will contend the Post article does not pick too much but when talking about fundamental, constitutional rights a touch of discretion may be the better part of valor.
Also interesting is that the Post reporter uses very different language to describe three groups opposed to CEI’s climate change thinking than what he uses to describe CEI…despite all of the groups being officially organized in very similar ways. Greenpeace – cited as a “nonprofit environmental group” – is noted for their database of contributions to groups opposed to Greenpeace’s view on environmental policy. The American Institute of Physics is highlighted as the employer of an author studying corporate America’s views on climate change. Both of these groups are organized under the non-profit sections of the IRS coded as is CEI. Another group, the Climate Investigations Center, is highlighted for obtaining internal documents about ExxonMobil’s policy work but its website is incomplete, has very little identifying information available, and does not show up on the GuideStar database of non-profits.
The Post’s punchline is clear – CEI does its “lobbying” work under the guise of being a charity, as designated by the IRS. By citing the organizations outlined above, however, they do not seem to have similar qualms about other groups using the same designation when the correct environmental shibboleths are offered.
Here in The Sunflower State, Kansas Policy Institute has the same 501(c)3 designation as does CEI. We use this designation to help inform the debate in Topeka while advocating for limited government and individual liberty. Kansas Action for Children uses the same IRS designation to espouse the ideological opposite of KPI in Kansas and has every right to do so. While these two groups engage in a sometimes aggressive debate, at least for our part, we do so with the understanding that both groups have every right to function and share their beliefs, and that donors have a constitutional right to private free speech. One needn’t look far (here or here) to see where KPI takes KAC to task for their dubious claims or progressive policy ideas. KAC’s right to advocate for higher taxes or more spending, and their donors’ rights to support this mission, comes from the same constitutional origin as does KPI’s right to argue for the opposite. This is the right called into question by The Washington Post and should be defended by those across the ideological spectrum.
It is because GreenPeace, Kansas Action for Children, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and KPI have the ability engage the policy process that we live in the freest, most prosperous country on Earth. Our organizational right to do our work comes from the same right every Kansan has to ask their elected officials hard questions, demand answers, and take a position of the issues most important to you.
You or I certainly do not agree with each of these groups but we must defend their right to take a position and advocate for it in the halls of government.
The Washington Post attack on CEI may appear fairly innocuous, but it comes at a time when cultural norms – civility, free speech, republican government, et al – are under attack in troubling ways. It undermines the spirit of the Bill of Rights. It represents a disdain for freedom that makes me worry about the country my children will inherit.