October 24, 1995 in City

Amendment Puts A Price On Free Speech

Rhoda H. Karpatkin Knight-Ridder/Tribune
 
Tags:column

Consumer Reports magazine and its nonprofit publisher, Consumers Union, have been thrown onto the stage of a disturbing Washington drama, along with the American Red Cross, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, the YMCA, the Cancer Society, the Heart Association and thousands of other organizations that help all Americans.

For nearly 60 years, Consumers Union has been testing products and educating consumers. We’ve also proudly contributed to public policy debates about such vital consumer issues as product safety, lead and children’s health, and the affordability of auto insurance. Our advice and views have been sought and appreciated by legislators and presidents in both parties, as well as by millions of American families.

Our work is supported by subscriptions and donations from millions of individual consumers. Occasionally - very occasionally - we have received a modest government grant to reach a special audience we couldn’t afford to help with our existing resources.

For the organizations mentioned above, and thousands more, that receive federal grants to maintain projects, members of Congress have recently proposed a bizarre and unconstitutional form of punishment - force these groups to choose between grants for their programs and their democratic right to be heard by our government. Not since the period of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee has there been such an unabashed and wholesale assault on First Amendment rights.

This punishment is outlined in a proposal by Reps. Ernest Jim Istook, R-Okla., David McIntosh, R-Ind., and Robert Ehrlich Jr., R-Md., commonly referred to as the Istook Amendment. This proposal would impose severe new limitations and reporting requirements on any group that accepts a federal grant.

Grantees now have to account fully for their use of grant money, none of which can be used for lobbying. Current law clearly and specifically defines “lobbying” as communication with government officials about pending legislation.

Under the Istook Amendment, grantees would have to prove that they have not exceeded “political advocacy limits” with the use of their own private funds. To make things worse, “political advocacy” is both broadly and poorly defined. It seems to include almost every uninvited contact on almost any subject with any local, state, federal or judicial official. In short, accepting any federal grant money would mean triggering a definition of advocacy that goes far beyond the current tax code definitions of “lobbying,” imposing unprecedented limitations on legitimate activities. Nonprofit organizations would also face new, bureaucratic bookkeeping, accounting and reporting requirements to police these sweeping prohibitions.

The combination of these restrictions will surely stifle mission-oriented organizations in their efforts to express the needs of the people they serve. It would constrain Consumers Union’s ability to comment on government safety regulations, such as those covering child safety seats or food labeling.

The American people should be outraged that members of Congress would seek to limit the First Amendment rights of free speech and to petition government, rights held dear by citizens acting through their organizations - nonprofit or not. Nonprofit groups must either choose to fall silent in order to keep their grants, or reduce their programs to protect their freedom of speech. In either case, a valuable pool of services, information and viewpoints will be lost to governmental decision-makers and to all citizens.

In Consumers Union’s case, we’ve been awarded - but have not received - a $300,534 grant from the National Science Foundation. Along with other matching funds, this NSF grant would be used to develop a televised science education project designed to teach children how they can think scientifically, by testing products they use in daily life. It is untenable that the price of undertaking such a useful project would be limits on our right to communicate with federal agencies about child safety or other crucial public policy issues.

In imposing such a gag, the Istook Amendment shows contempt for the organizations that are the lifeblood of citizen participation in society, and ignorance of how essential these organizations are to the functioning of the democratic society we’ve built in this country.

In a democracy, it makes no sense to keep organizations with expertise and public purposes from sharing their views with governmental bodies. The Istook Amendment assaults the very concept of an informed and educated citizenry participating in governmental decision-making.

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