The SWP’s fight for the exemption is part of its decades-long support for the right of workers, farmers, and their organizations to engage in political activity, including elections, free from government and right-wing harassment. The communist movement has consistently opposed every measure by the capitalist rulers and their hired thugs to assert a monopoly over the right to organize, the ability to carry out political action, and the possibility to be heard by the working population.
The SWP has run candidates for office since its founding in 1938. It has fielded candidates for U.S. president and vice president in every election since 1948. These socialist campaigns serve as a platform to reach out with revolutionary ideas to a broad working-class audience, as well as to defend the party’s ability to function on the same footing as any other political organization in the United States.
The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act required candidates and campaign committees to file detailed reports listing those who contribute more than $200 to their campaigns--names, addresses, and occupations, as well as amounts contributed. These reports are open to the public. As such, they are a convenient "enemies list" for government agencies, employers, private spies, and right-wing groups and individuals.
The SWP won partial exemption from this act in a 1979 FEC ruling, which has been extended several times at roughly six-year intervals. Since then, the party has not been required to disclose the names of contributors to its election campaigns, as well as the names of vendors with whom campaign committees do business. The SWP won the exemption on the basis of the threat to First Amendment rights to free association posed by the disclosure of campaign contributors’ names.
Attorney Michael Krinsky--a senior partner at the New York firm of Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman-- filed the request for the extension of the exemption in February on the party’s behalf.
At the end of March, after reviewing the materials filed, FEC staff attorneys recommended granting the party’s request.
Some debate took place during the April 3 FEC meeting. Two of the six commissioners--Daniel McDonald, a Democrat, and David Mason, a Republican--spoke and voted against the extension. They both argued that the level of harassment of the party and its election campaigns by government agencies has "declined." Half of the Commission’s members are Republicans and half Democrats.
FEC chairperson Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, said she agreed with the assessment that government harassment of the party had declined. At the same time, she stated that, with Washington at war, public perception that the views of the SWP are "unpatriotic" and "opposed to the current government" could have a chilling effect on its First Amendment rights. She said that when the exemption expires in 2008 "hopefully we can say it is no longer necessary."
The request for the extension, and the recommendation for its approval by FEC’s legal staff, gave considerable weight to what FEC staff attorney Michael Marinelli called the "history of violence or threats of violence, whether state or private," including wiretaps, use of informers, poison pen letters to employers, black-bag break-ins, and other illegal acts against the party.
Debate at April 3 FEC meeting
McDonald and Mason attempted to take advantage of the fact that the mass social struggles by working people--beginning with the civil rights movement, widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the fight for women’s equality-- pushed back the ability of the White House and right-wing groups to carry out some of these open forms of harassment aimed at restricting the rights of working people to carry out political activity.
"I just don’t see a strong case being made for granting this extension," said McDonald. "Times have changed." He said that there are other groups facing "racial and religious" bias that can "make a better case"--a cynical reference to the government’s detention of thousands of immigrants based solely on their country of origin. He complained that if the commission always used this standard of past government harassment, it will "never be able to move on from this point."
The SWP detailed 74 incidents of harassment in the last six years to support its application for the extension. They included 28 cases of police interference with election campaign activities. These consisted of prohibiting campaign supporters from distributing materials in public places, threatening campaign workers with arrest, photographing participants in an antiwar demonstration, issuing campaigners citations, and in many cases expressing hostility to the views of the socialists and their right to promote them publicly. Each incident was documented by sworn declarations, official records, photographs, and articles that appeared in mass circulation periodicals.
In defense of the FEC legal staff’s recommendation, Marinelli pointed out that among the incidents described in the party’s request was the 2001 firing of Michael Italie, SWP candidate for mayor of Miami, by his employer, Goodwill Industries, explicitly for advocating his political views off the job. The advisory opinion stated that this was the most well-documented case of harassment of a Socialist Workers candidate.
When Marinelli referred the commissioners to a series of three break-ins at the party’s mayoral campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C., he was interrupted by Mason, who argued that there is no evidence the break-ins were "politically motivated." The campaign headquarters was broken into over a three-day period last August, as campaign supporters were wrapping up a petitioning effort to get the party’s candidate on the ballot.
The request submitted by the SWP cited legal precedents establishing that the "absence of such concrete evidence [of harassment], however, does not mandate dismissal of the claim."
In approving the extension, the commission concurred with the legal staff’s advisory opinion, which stated, "The history of governmental harassment continues to have a present-day chilling effect that is not diminished by the abatement of governmental harassment."
The party’s request had also cited legal precedents, beginning with the original decision to grant the exemption in 1979. That ruling established that since the SWP is a minor party, which receives small total amounts of contributions and low vote totals in electoral races, "the compelling interests of the government in disclosure of the names of its contributors is outweighed by the party’s and its supporters’ First Amendment rights."
FEC vice-chair Bradley Smith, a Republican, spoke in favor of extending the exemption. At the same time, he mocked as "odd" the argument made by the courts and in the draft FEC opinion, that the government’s compelling interest in disclosure was not important for parties or candidates with little chance of being elected, but very important with regard to those supporters of parties capable of winning an election.
"Why does the government have an interest in keeping a data base on the political affiliation of citizens at all," he asked, "when in other areas, the political views of individuals are protected?" Smith said that some lower courts have ruled that minor parties "don’t need to keep any records."
Following the hearing, SWP leader Steve Clark was interviewed by a reporter from the Associated Press. Asked what he thought of the argument by some commissioners that harassment of the party had declined, Clark said, "The government is probing right now to push back the political gains won by working people through the mass social struggles of the 1960s and 70s." He pointed to the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which gives wider latitude to the FBI and other political police agencies to conduct wiretappings and arbitrary searches and seizures in private homes and businesses. Clark noted that in several cities local governments, basing themselves on initiatives by Attorney General John Ashcroft, have begun to revive "Red Squads." City attorneys in several cities have argued that in order to fight "terrorism" local cops need to be able to "gather information" on suspected groups and individuals, regardless of whether that activity is believed to be criminal or not.
"This makes the victory won by the SWP one that can be used to defend the ability to organize and take political action by workers, farmers, and others exercising their constitutional rights," Clark said.
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