Welcome to Free Speech Week 2023

October 16, 2023 | Heather Lauer

Welcome to Free Speech Week 2023, an annual celebration of our uniquely American commitment to open speech and vigorous debate. This celebration, first launched in 2003, invites us to pause for a moment to consider the blessings of free speech. It also reminds us to be eternally vigilant in our efforts to protect this sacred right.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized that a diverse and vibrant society required the protection of minority viewpoints and unpopular speech. They believed that open debate and the free exchange of ideas were essential for citizens to be able to govern themselves and defend against tyranny. As a result, the First Amendment was included to safeguard the right of citizens to express their opinions, even if they were contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy.

Americans use their speech rights in myriad fashions. Some author articles for local papers, while others attend protests. Some might start political groups or run for office themselves.

Some Americans choose to speak through donations to nonprofit groups like the Heritage Foundation, ACLU, Cato Institute, and tens of thousands of others. Their names are private unless the donor chooses to have her information made public.

Today, this core First Amendment right is under near-constant attack. Unscrupulous politicians, power-hungry bureaucrats, and militant activists are working to expose donors’ names and home addresses under the guise of promoting “transparency.”

But transparency is for government. Privacy is for people.

Those folks claim they’re working to combat “dark money” in politics. But that’s not it at all. Instead, they’re hoping to silence dissenting speech by exposing donors to harassment and retaliation for their beliefs.

A North Dakota state senator accidentally revealed the true purpose of donor disclosure efforts when he said he “need[s] to know who [his] enemies are” after he received unflattering mailers sent by a nonprofit in his state.

Americans are growing increasingly concerned about the state of free speech in the country. Politicians from both parties are willing to expose donors’ private information in pursuit of political victories. Exposing this sensitive information to the public is a dangerous assault on speech rights, and nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to force some voices to fall silent.

We can and should debate each other on policy issues, but as Americans, we must agree on the right to disagree. Donor privacy protections can and must be part of the fight to restore free speech and open debate.

This Free Speech Week, let’s reaffirm our commitment to civil, vigorous debate and steer our country away from policies that would endanger those who support nonprofit organizations.