By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org
MADISON – U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has lots of questions for hundreds of U.S. businesses and conservative organizations about the company they keep. He’s interested in their possible affiliation with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and he’d like to know how they feel about a particular gun law.
But a spokesman for the Illinois Democrat says Durbin’s letter – mailed out this week to entities ranging from Coca Cola Co. to the Academy of General Dentistry and Yahoo! – isn’t about politics but policy.
“We’re not targeting anyone,” wrote Durbin press secretary Max Gleischman in an email, following repeated information requests to the senator’s office from Watchdog.org.
That’s not how others feel, including a First Amendment expert whose organization received the same letter.
Trevor Burrus, research fellow in the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank once heavily funded by David and Charles Koch, who fund ALEC, called Durbin’s letter-writing campaign “uncouth.” Burrus said the timing of the letter in particular is “par for the course” in the liberal effort to shame those involved in what they deem to be the wrong kind of political speech.
“The shaming and calling out of people for political purposes is apparently how things are done in Washington these days,” he said.
And another First Amendment expert said Durbin’s ALEC-centered information-gathering campaign could be seen as “chilling” to journalism, particularly because the senator believes the government should determine who’s a legitimate journalist.
Watchdog’s nonprofit media parent, too, landed on the list of 300 organizations Durbin contacted.
In his letter to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Durbin asks the nonprofit news organization whether it has given money to or ever been affiliated with ALEC, the model legislation think tank that liberals love to hate.
Gleischman says the line of questioning is about getting to the bottom of “stand your ground” legislation – measures that afford legal protections to individuals who shoot home intruders or “meet force with force.” Durbin plans to convene a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights next month to examine the issue.
“We sent identical letters to anyone who appears to have been a financial supporter of ALEC following the 2005 adoption of ALEC’s model stand your ground law,” the spokesman said in the email. “The senator’s hearing is designed to examine so-called stand your ground laws and the constitutional, civil and human rights those laws raise.”
Durbin’s questions and the hearing come in the shadow of the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a case some have tried to link to a “stand your ground” law in Florida. And there’s been a whole lot of political grandstanding ever since.
ALEC holds its 40th anniversary meeting in Chicago this week. Liberals everywhere have glommed on to model press releases and stories about the perceived evils of the organization, which mainly focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism – inherently evil things to a lot of liberals.
Watchdog.org asked Durbin’s office whether the senator’s letter was inspired by such anti-ALEC activism. He said anti-ALEC organizations like Media Matters had nothing to do with crafting the letter or its questions.
“(T)he idea to ask these questions of ALEC’s financial supporters, like the letter, came from our office,” the spokesman said.
Of course, there’s no way to verify that. Uniquely among U.S. officials, Congress exempts its members from the Freedom of Information Act, the federal open-records law.
But in an era of high-profile government overreach – the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of political organizations, the National Security Agency’s apparent monitoring of just about everybody – Durbin’s nonpolitical letter raises a lot more questions.
Durbin recently has opined that there must be some kind of a litmus test to “define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive.”
“What is it he thinks he’s doing here?” Stverak asked Wednesday. “Does he think he has the authority to oversee state legislatures? Is it his job to tell citizens and groups what sort of policies they may advocate? What about tracking down all the members of that group?
“Why not just ask it: are we now or have we ever been members of the American Legislative Exchange Council?”
A Franklin Center board member does sit on ALEC’s board of directors, a fact noted on Franklin’s website. But to Durbin’s inquiries, Stverak otherwise responds: “It’s none of his business.”
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and vice president of the First Amendment Center, said there’s nothing wrong with a lawmaker asking questions and trying to get answers to important public quality questions. But he said Durbin’s focus on ALEC and the news organizations with some apparent ties to it strikes him as “interesting.”
“One could view (Durbin’s letter) as innocently as a simple request for information to a very chilling implication in an environment in which the very definition of journalism is being reset,” Policinski said.
Contact M.D. Kittle at firstname.lastname@example.org