‘Greater Transparency’ Really Means Shutting Down Corporate Free Speech
Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Greater Transparency’ Really Means Shutting Down Corporate Free Speech

In progressive ideology, liberal billionaires are like a cardigan-wearing Mr. Rogers, inviting the rest of the world to the Land of Make Believe for a cup of nonfat, organic, free-trade cocoa. On the other end of the spectrum reside the Koch brothers, twirling their respective mustaches as they push wheelchair-bound pensioners down flights of stairs. Such increasingly has been the narrative since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, a controversial (for progressives) ruling that launched activism to overturn it from every left-of-center group, including religious shareholder activists As You Sow, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and Bruce Freed’s Center for Political Accountability.

On September 24, Freed’s group released its annual CPA-Zicklin Index, about which it trumpets:

On their own initiative, dozens of leading American corporations are embracing disclosure of their spending to influence political elections. These companies are supporting disclosure even as several of the biggest trade associations oppose it, according to a nonpartisan index released today.

As the nation approaches mid-term elections that may be the most expensive in history, the Center for Political Accountability issued its fourth annual CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability.

The Index shows that a majority of almost 200 publicly held companies that were examined in both 2013 and 2014 received higher overall scores for political disclosure and accountability this year. The average overall score for these 102 companies improved by an average of 12.5 points.

The demand that publicly held companies disclose political spending may seem reasonable – on first blush. But what of companies that view the interests of their shareholders and customers in a more complex light? In such a scenario, a company may support a candidate with very solid free-market credentials that could benefit the company, its customers, employees and shareholders. However, the same candidate might anger activists over a position taken on a completely unrelated but emotionally charged issue. In such instances, those opposing the candidate’s stance on the latter issue have mounted boycotts against the company that might actually agree with the activists, but views its duty to shareholders to support the candidate with stronger free-market values. The tactic goes like this: Disagree with a candidate on one issue, and target the candidate’s donors for a boycott. This “name and shame” tactic increasingly is employed against companies seeking nothing more than promoting their shareholders’ best interests.

The Center for Competitive Politics, a group billing itself as “the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights,” disagrees with the mission of CPA, AYS, ICCR and a host of other progressive groups (many listed below). As noted by Joe Trotter, CCP media manager:

“The Index is little more than activism cloaked in the garb of legitimate academia…. There is no evidence suggesting that further corporate disclosure provides a benefit to investors. Rather, the disclosed information is used by activist investors to harass corporations until they either fall in line with activists or cease participating in our nation’s political discourse altogether.”…

“CPA employs the ‘foot in the door’ technique to gradually push companies into complying with CPA’s activist agenda,’ said CCP President David Keating. ‘Blinded by the short term success of avoiding negative publicity by complying with CPA, companies quickly find themselves in the increasingly uncomfortable position of trying to comply with CPA’s changing demands for unnecessary disclosure.”

Financing such efforts to stifle political speech, of course, requires a group of wealthy sponsors. Among the aforementioned cocoa-pushing billionaires identified in The Wall Street Journal:

The populist roll call includes $5 million from fossil fuel investor turned climate change evangelist Tom Steyer, Chicago media magnate Fred Eychaner ($4 million), former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($2.5 million) and hedge-fund founder James Simons ($2 million). Some $6.6 million comes from unions (via coerced dues), and nearly $4 million in $250,000 gifts from the likes of trial lawyers ( Peter Angelos, David Boies ) and tech and media moguls ( Google’s Eric Schmidt, recording executive Jerry Moss).

AYS and ICCR linked elbows with Freed’s CPA in its avowed efforts to require transparency for all corporate political spending. From the ICCR website, celebrating the collection earlier this month of 1 million signatures on a corporate political-spending petition submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission:

Laura Berry, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility said ‘It is no surprise that over one million comments have been received demanding greater transparency on corporate political spending. As investors, this information is crucial to understand corporate strategies that impact the future value of our investments. As citizens, we must fully understand how our government is influenced by corporate interests. Understanding where and how corporate dollars flow is the most straightforward approach.’

AYS and ICCR are joined in these transparency efforts by other religious, unions and leftist-billionaire funded groups (a complete list can be found here).

“Treating the CPA-Zicklin Index as a measure of ‘best corporate practices’ is like asking foxes to offer best practices for henhouses,” according to CCP President David Keating.

Corporations have an obligation to do what is in the best interest of their shareholders, not comply with the demands of a non-profit that opposes speech by the business community,” added CCP Chairman Brad Smith, former Federal Election Commission Chairman. Smith continued: “With all of the misinformation peddled by groups like the Center for Political Accountability, it’s important to recognize the implications of activist investing and dragging the SEC into politics,” he said. “CPA has no obligation to worry about the actual interests of shareholders, and nothing suggests that they have the best interest of the business community at heart.”

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.