December 19, 2001
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The lead editorial in today's New York Times defends a law that requires some groups engaged in political speech to disclose their donors. If the law is changed, the Times frets, "clever fund-raisers could drive truckloads of anonymous cash through."
The Times only in passing refers to what that cash might be used for. The best indication is a reference to "the presidential campaign," when "a sham group calling itself Republicans for Clean Air ran advertisements in New York attacking Senator John McCain during the primary season."
The Times editorial frets that a change to the law "opens a potential huge loophole freeing political groups from even the most simple reporting requirements."
Hmmm. This "loophole" was once known as the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. The Amendment doesn't distinguish between "anonymous" speech and non-anonymous speech. It doesn't say that disclosure of the identity of the speaker may be required.
In fact there was a U.S. Supreme Court case on this very point, the 1995 case of McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. In that case, Justice Stevens, writing an opinion for the court, said, "Great works of literature have frequently been produced by authors writing under assumed names. Despite readers' curiosity and the public's interest in identifying the creator of a work of art, an author generally is free to decide whether or not to disclose her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, at least in the field of literary endeavor, the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. Accordingly, an author's decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."
A footnote pointed out that "American names such as Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) come readily to mind. Benjamin Franklin employed numerous different pseudonyms. . . . Distinguished French authors such as Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet) and George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin), and British authors such as George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Charles Lamb (sometimes wrote as 'Elia'), and Charles Dickens (sometimes wrote as 'Boz') , also published under assumed names."
The Supreme Court decision in McIntyre noted that this tradition extends to political speech in America, as well: "That tradition is most famously embodied in the Federalist Papers, authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, but signed 'Publius.' Publius's opponents, the Anti Federalists, also tended to publish under pseudonyms: prominent among them were 'Cato,' believed to be New York Governor George Clinton; 'Centinel,' probably Samuel Bryan or his father, Pennsylvania judge and legislator George Bryan; 'The Federal Farmer,' who may have been Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and 'Brutus,' who may have been Robert Yates, a New York Supreme Court justice who walked out on the Constitutional Convention. . . . A forerunner of all of these writers was the pre-Revolutionary War English pamphleteer 'Junius,' whose true identity remains a mystery."
Had the Times editorialists' view about the threat of "anonymous cash" prevailed at the dawn of the Republic, the debate over ratification of the Constitution might have been less vigorous, and either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights might never have passed. 'Cato,' Hamilton, Madison and Jay might all have been muffled.
The final irony, of course, is that today's screed against the evils of anonymous participation in political debate is penned by an unnamed editorialist, in an unsigned Times editorial.
Teddy Tumbles: A dispatch from Washington in the national page of the New York Times carries the following quote from Senator Kennedy about an education bill: "If your child is doing well, with this legislation, they will do better. If your child is failing, with this legislation they will get the help they need. Help is on its way." Maybe the education bill will teach children that a "child" is a singular noun that would deserve the pronoun "he" or "she." If the Senator wants to use "they" to avoid a gender-specific pronoun, then his soundbite should have started, "If your children are doing well. . ." and "If your children are failing. . ."
News Article: Original, non-Times related news article follows: Want to Know How Your Council Member Voted? Good Luck.
By BENJAMIN SMITH
Mr. Bonavita, 31, and his colleagues in the Legislative Documents office have access to something ordinary citizens don't: Legistar. It's a commercially available computer program that allows users to search for everything from voting records to bill texts. And it's available in the offices of the City Council's central staff, to the staff of Speaker Peter Vallone, and to some -- but not all -- members of the council.
The lack of easy public electronic access to some public information in the City Council stands in sharp contrast to the Web site of the executive arm of New York government, nyc.gov, which won a "Best of the Web" award this year from the California-based Center for Digital Government for providing instant access to documents like inspection records for restaurants and buildings. Critics say that the City Council's reticence has helped protect a do-nothing body from scrutiny. Now, a group of newly elected council members are pushing to make the Legistar records easily available to the public.
"This is not rocket science," Councilman A. Gifford Miller said of putting more information online. "In fact, it's already been done. We just have to give the public and council members access to it," he said at a debate earlier this month.
The problem with the current system is not that voting information isn't, strictly speaking, available: complete council proceedings are bound in thick volumes every six months. To answer the question of who voted for what, or even if members showed up to vote, citizens can go to a library where the books are kept and read through the proceedings roll call by roll call.
The system "is just not user friendly," says Lenore Chester, a former associate director of the non-profit Citizens Union Foundation who started a project to track council votes a decade ago. "If you're a member of the public, forget it."
But the council leadership says there is no need to make its internal system available to the public.
"There is no government need to be able to run a voting record by member," City Council spokesman Jordan Barowitz told Smartertimes.com.
So Legistar is off limits to citizens who don't happen to work in City Hall. The council Web site does offer the complete texts of bills under consideration and of laws that have been passed, but voting and attendance records are not included.
That doesn't have to be. Albuquerque, for example, also uses Legistar, according to a press release from the company that produces the program, Daystar Computer Systems. And the Albuquerque city Web site offers access not just to bills, but also to votes. Atlanta has a similar system in place. And the Web site of Washington, D.C. -- where the mismanagement got so bad that the federal government appointed a control board to oversee --the city's finances in 1995 -- allows visitors to select and scroll through the voting record of any of its 13 council members, vote by vote.
New York's city council is admittedly larger than most. But its 51 members are nothing compared to the United States House of Representatives, whose Web site allows citizens to view how each of the 435 representatives voted on a given bill.
"If members want" to open New York's system up "they can," the council's Mr. Borowitz said. "There hasn't been an overwhelming desire."
That desire appears to have arrived this year with the turnover that term limits will bring to the council. A group of newly elected members calling themselves the "Fresh Democracy Council" have penned a statement of principles that includes a demand to give the public "full access to Legistar." They are also calling for meeting agendas -- which are sometimes set immediately before a meeting under the current regime -- to be set in advance and distributed on the Web.
It isn't just ordinary citizens who are being left out. Mr. Miller, who is a leading contender to replace Mr. Vallone as speaker, doesn't have access to Legistar either, he told the audience at a speaker candidates' debate earlier this month.
Staff for other council members say that they can get into Legistar. The council's Mr. Barowitz said that the delay in bringing Legistar to members like Mr. Miller and their staffs had to do with finding time for training sessions on the program.
The leading candidates for Council Speaker have endorsed plans to put more information on the council Web site. That move could call attention to another feature of the little-watched legislative body: the fact that virtually all the votes are either unanimous or along strict party lines.
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