By Jeff Knox : Opinion
Buckeye, AZ –-(Ammoland.com)- The state of Maryland has prosecuted, convicted, fined, and sanctioned a pair of political activists for allegedly producing and delivering an automated phone message thanking a candidate for taking a particular position on a controversial issue.
Everything said in the message was true and accurate, but the organization credited with sponsoring the message was ruled to be invalid, so the disclaimer at the end of the message declaring the group responsible for the message, was ruled to be inadequate to meet Maryland's campaign laws.
The men, Dennis Fusaro and Stephen Waters, are professional political consultants who were linked to the robo-calls via a trail of sketchy, circumstantial evidence. They were sentenced to a year in prison with all but 30 days suspended, a $1000 fine and 3 years of unsupervised probation, each, but they are appealing the convictions based on rights to free speech under the First Amendment and a corollary recognized by Maryland’s constitution.
The cost and inconvenience of the appeal will far exceed the sentence, but Fusaro and Waters say that their prosecution and convictions raise serious constitutional questions and should not be allowed to stand.
The right to free speech is sacrosanct to Americans, except, it seems, political speech of a flavor disagreeable to the bureaucrats in charge.
Back in the early days of the Republic our founding fathers valued political speech above all else – even above religious speech – and they routinely exercised that right anonymously. But today in America, campaign contributions, political advertisements, and producing electioneering materials are tightly regulated, and unlike voting, they require identification. Of course anonymous political speech hasn't gone away completely. We still have some semblance of anonymity on the internet, even though true anonymity online is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The rich and powerful can still hide behind front-groups and layers of PACs and bundlers to conceal their involvement, but for Joe Average American, anonymous political speech is difficult and can be a criminal offense.
The gatekeepers of free speech in Maryland disapproved of the message they attributed to Fusaro and Waters during a County Council race in 2014. The message did not advocate for or against any candidate, but did mention a candidate by name, highlighting his support of a controversial, transsexual rights bill. And while the message did include a statement of responsibility, the bureaucrats were unable to locate the group credited with authorizing it. The contention is that Fusaro and Waters created a “fictitious” group, wrote a script, kicked in a couple of hundred dollars, and paid for the calls to be recorded and delivered to county residents. Even if this contention is true – which Waters and Fusaro have never admitted – an informal association requires no paperwork or registration for it to be a legal entity. Anyone can form an ad hoc association based solely on the agreement of its members without any sort of government sanction. So if Fusaro and Waters created an association, to deliver a message, the statement of authorization in the ad crediting the association for the robo-calls and disavowing authorization by any other candidate, committee, or party, should be sufficient to meet the legal requirements.
If Mike Bloomberg wants to impact a local political race, as he frequently does, he doesn't buy a billboard or send out postcards with the message “I'm Mike Bloomberg and I paid for this political hit-piece.” Instead, one of his minions finds a few local people – or just moves to town and declares herself a local – and creates a front-group with a misleading name like “Nevadans for Gun Safety.”
Then Bloomberg gives money to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America or Everytown for Gun Safety – or one of their various subsidiary or related organizations – which then passes the money on to the astroturf “local group” to buy ads saying what Bloomberg wants said.
That is considered perfectly acceptable by the political speech police in Maryland and elsewhere.
What Fusaro and Waters were accused of was no different.
The judge in the case, concluded that the robo-calls were the duo's handiwork, and noted that they took pains to meet the requirements of Maryland election law, but he contended that attempting to operate within the laws was proof of intent to circumvent them.
The penalty he meted out to the two activists was even harsher than the prosecution had requested, because he said a message needed to be sent to future scofflaws who might want to express a political belief without clearly identifying themselves.
Legal observers say the case is unusual in several respects, and that it appears that Maryland is intentionally using the case to establish some legal precedents to make it easier to control political speech in the future. The large volume of existing case-law regarding free speech can be confusing and contradictory. Adding another layer to limit rights would not be a good thing.
Fusaro and Waters’ case has attracted some attention and assistance from a few civil rights groups, but none of the heavy hitters like the ACLU have waded into the case, probably due to the fact that Waters and Fusaro tend to advocate for “conservative” and libertarian positions that are not looked upon favorably by “liberal,” legal assistance groups.
The message itself, and who delivered it, should have no bearing on the legal case. There is no argument that the message was true and accurate. The only real bone of contention is attribution of the call to an informal organization that couldn't be easily tracked down and its members identified.
Appealing this case is costing thousands of dollars, and your help is needed. Losing the appeal – or not appealing at all – leaves a very dangerous precedent on the books, cutting deeper into your right to express yourself on political matters.
If you'd like to assist in this case, you can make a tax-deductible donation through www.RightsWatch.org. Every little bit matters – whether it's a little bit of money to help protect your rights, or a little more encroachment on rights by politicians looking to protect their seats. Please donate if you can.
About Jeff Knox:
Jeff Knox is a second-generation political activist and director of The Firearms Coalition. His father Neal Knox lead many of the early gun rights battles for your right to keep and bear arms. Read Neal Knox – The Gun Rights War.
The Firearms Coalition is a loose-knit coalition of individual Second Amendment activists, clubs and civil rights organizations. Founded by Neal Knox in 1984, the organization provides support to grassroots activists in the form of education, analysis of current issues, and with a historical perspective of the gun rights movement. The Firearms Coalition is a project of Neal Knox Associates, Manassas, VA. Visit: www.FirearmsCoalition.org