Politics & Policy

Connecticut Democrats’ War on Free Speech

Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Public financing of campaigns is no excuse for a crackdown on conservative dissent.

I’m learning that when government pays, political speech ceases to be free.

Along with my friend and colleague, Connecticut state representative Rob Sampson, I’ve been charged with a violation of campaign-spending statutes by our state elections-enforcement authority. My misdeed was a single mention of Governor Dannel Malloy in each of two mailings we sent during the last state election.

In one flyer, we used the phrase “Malloy’s Bad Policies”; in the other, “Malloy’s Tax Hike.” To my mind, “Malloy’s Tax Hike” is a designation like “Halley’s Comet,” the name by which a thing is known. But the state alleges that those references constituted a contribution to the campaign of Malloy’s Republican opponent, which would require disclosure and reimbursement — despite the fact that we neither mentioned said opponent nor urged the defeat of Malloy.

Representative Sampson used exactly the same words in his 2012 campaign mailings, and doubtless will utter them again in his race this fall, as will I. According to elections enforcement, we will be within our legal rights to do so: We can state our opinion of the governor, but only so long as he’s not also on the ballot.

The fact is, we didn’t bring the governor up to hurt his campaign, but to make our own position clear to voters: Dan Malloy is Connecticut’s single biggest problem. His enormous tax hikes (the two largest in state history, one each passed immediately after his election and reelection), his reckless borrowing, and his refusal to reduce the size and scope of state government have brought our state to the precipice. Prohibiting us from sharing with voters our opinion of the governor would deprive them of the most important piece of political information we can offer.

Such a capricious restriction on explicitly political speech seems unlikely to hold up in court. Perhaps that’s why the state has tendered us a weaselly settlement, offering to waive any potential punishment if we will simply confess our sins. Of course most accused candidates signed it — who wants to go through a legal dispute with the state?

For that matter, who wants to cause trouble for a campaign treasurer? Ours had no part in the decision either to produce the literature in question or to spurn the proffered settlement, yet they are also charged in the action. Our decision to fight elections enforcement over a matter of principle leaves our treasurers subject to any penalty imposed on us.

To my mind, threatening loyal campaign workers is a kind of blackmail. But if Representative Sampson and I let this opinion go unchallenged, the bureaucracy will have once again settled a legal question in a way that curtails free speech and unfettered political conversation.

I suspect the issue never would have arisen if we didn’t have public campaign financing in Connecticut. For a state senate race, I raise $15,000 and the state kicks in about $95,000 more. In principle that’s alarming, but here it’s a fact of political life that the minority party must accept in order to succeed. Because we cannot change direction in Connecticut without winning elections, I take the funding and urge my allies to do so as well.

Now, however, I find myself bitten by the hand that feeds me, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

Republicans face state-financed opposition all the time, with public employees pushing their liberal agenda to elected officials and to the citizens generally. But Democrats aren’t accustomed to having state money used against them, and it seems that they don’t like it.

That, I think, is what this charge is all about: The ruling party wants to prevent conservative candidates from using public financing to speak out against progressive policies and liberal officeholders. For the establishment here, that’s just unacceptable.

But you can’t talk about Connecticut without talking about Dan Malloy. And to name him is to criticize him, since there’s nothing to say about him that’s not negative. Tax hikes and bad policy are what he’s all about, and you can expect to hear more about them both, in our mailings this fall and — if we don’t defeat his legislative allies on November 8 — in our struggling state next year.

— Joe Markley represents the 16th district in the Connecticut state senate.

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