Free Speech Wins, Kamala Harris Loses in California

Kamala Harris hands (Nick Ut / Associated Press)
Nick Ut/Associated Press

The First Amendment is alive and well in California — no thanks to California Attorney General and would-be United States Senator Kamala Harris.

Federal Judge Manuel Real made that much clear recently when he ruled against Harris in a lawsuit brought by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. It serves as a reminder that constitutional rights can never be taken for granted, and must be defended at every turn.

Starting in 2013, Ms. Harris began arbitrarily demanding that the non-profit AFP Foundation turn over a list of its supporters to her office, or the organization would basically be kicked out of the Golden State. She also threatened the organization’s officers and directors with civil penalties and fines.

Harris claimed her office needed to know who supported the AFP Foundation to help police potential fraud.  However, her openly hostile stance to members and supporters of free-market organizations made it highly likely that would ultimately result in harassment and intimidation by the Attorney General and her ideological allies.

In his recent ruling, Judge Real rejected Ms. Harris’s argument that having the names of supporters was necessary for law enforcement.  Evidence presented at trial proved there was not “a single, concrete instance in which pre-investigation collection of a [supporter list] did anything to advance the AG’s investigative, regulatory, or enforcement efforts,” he ruled.

Ms. Harris also argued that private supporter lists disclosed to her office would be kept private, as they would only be used for internal purposes and not be shared publicly.  Yet Judge Real was not convinced of that, either — and abundant evidence showed he was right to be concerned.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation discovered more than 1,700 private donor lists had been posted on the Attorney General’s public website,  impermissibly, including 38 that were found as the trial began. Judge Real said that showed the government “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality of [supporter lists],” and that “while human error can sometimes be unavoidable, the amount of careless mistakes made by the Attorney General’s Registry is shocking.”

Apparently Hillary Clinton will not be the only candidate on the ballot this November who has problems with e-mails, and secrecy.

Such “careless mistakes” carry serious implications.  In his ruling, Judge Real noted the “ample evidence establishing that AFP, its employees, supporters and donors face public threats, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation. … [T]his Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members.”

That is a tremendous victory for the First Amendment. More importantly, the case has implications for individuals and organizations of all stripes who value the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment. An adverse ruling would have had a chilling effect on free speech in California, and likely encouraged similar anti-speech crusades across the country.

But hyperpartisan attacks like this are not over.  Harris has already confirmed she will appeal Judge Real’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the right to privacy and free speech will be attacked all over again.

As is often the case, Jefferson summed it up best: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


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