Anti-Speech Activists Never Let a Scandal Go to Waste

January 12, 2024 | Brian Hawkins

George Santos’ tumultuous time in Congress came to an end last month when his peers voted to expel him from the House of Representatives. Santos’s fall from grace was hastened by a series of lies about his personal life but also ethics investigations into his alleged misuse of campaign funds for lavish personal spending.

As is common in Washington politics, free speech opponents are seizing on Santos’s scandals to call for stricter regulation of “money in politics.” Yet advocating for a massive expansion of campaign finance law, which frequently includes burdening nonprofit organizations with onerous donor disclosure requirements, ignores that existing laws already root out the most serious cases of public corruption. If anything, Santos’s indictments demonstrate that campaign finance laws are working as intended, rendering expanded disclosure unnecessary.

George Santos faces a litany of charges, but none would have been prevented with more disclosure mandates. Among other misdeeds, Santos is charged with filing false campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission, using campaign funds for personal use, unemployment insurance fraud, and making false statements. Both contributions to campaigns and campaign expenditures are already disclosed in reports to the FEC, and it is information gleaned from those reports that are the subject of Santos’s legal troubles.

Yet, privacy opponents tell The New York Times that the solution to a politician disregarding the law is to pass more laws. According to one such activist, attorney Paul S. Ryan, “The bottom line here is that the only thing the F.E.C. sees, in most instances, at first glance, are the campaign finance disclosure reports… And if someone is smart enough to simply lie about what they are using it for, then it can go overlooked.”

In reality, the FEC and other regulators have ample resources at their disposal to surface discrepancies in campaign finance reports. In the instance of George Santos’s allegations, whistleblowers filed complaints against his campaign, which provided probable cause for an investigation. Once again, more disclosure would not have surfaced the discrepancies if the reports were falsified in the first place. A politician’s willingness to break the law and lie on government forms will not be solved by giving them more forms to fill out – but it will burden nonprofits and their supporters who will drown in paperwork while striving to comply with the law.

In the states, the story is much the same. In Ohio, a bribery scandal involving former House Speaker Larry Householder was paraded as a rationale for a crackdown on all manner of political speech and activity. In Michigan, the Attorney General has called for more disclosure from nonprofits after bringing indictments against a pair of aides to a former lawmaker.

In all of these cases, the alleged perpetrators were discovered and charged for breaking existing laws. Yet many activists live by the maxim, “never let a crisis go to waste.” When public corruption is uncovered, it’s usually just a matter of time before First Amendment rights are threatened.

While corruption from public officials is problematic because it erodes trust in our government, stamping out corruption should not come at the expense of the First Amendment. Enforcement regimes cannot assume that all nonprofits are being used for illicit purposes and must prove their innocence via onerous disclosure mechanisms. Rather, the burden is on the government to prove impropriety.

As odious as the charges against George Santos appear, if they are true, then Santos will have broken the law and will be punished. Expanding the reach of campaign finance law by potentially imposing disclosure requirements on nonprofits engaged in issue advocacy will have hazardous effects on free speech rights while doing nothing to cure public corruption.