Free Speech means the right to criticize politicians – and NM politicians don’t like it

free-speech-zone1Let’s face it.  Elected officials don’t like to be criticized – and especially not in public.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  They have feelings too.  But criticism goes with the territory.  And there’s a big problem when those same officials attempt to use their powers to stifle the public’s exercise of free speech.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the right of free speech, including the right to discuss and dissent and to criticize the public acts of governmental officials, is afforded the highest protection from government interference.

That’s why it’s so alarming that two measures to clamp down on free discussion of governmental actions are being rushed through the New Mexico Legislature. These two bills, HB808 sponsored by Rep. Paul Bandy (R-Aztez) and SB652, sponsored by Sen. William Payne (R-Albuq.), have earned the “Politician Protection Act” tag, along with HB 891, sponsored by House Majority Leader Ken Martinez and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez.

Some of the legal theories being dredged up to attack the non-profits certainly should make any lover of the Constitution shudder.  Take the argument employed in committee testimony recently by Deputy Attorney General Phil Baca, who drafted HB808 at the direction of House Minority Leader, Rep. Ken Martinez (D-Grants).  “Under New Mexico state law, we’re sovereign… We don’t have to grant tax exempt status to any organization we want…We’re an independent sovereign,” Baca said.

Considering the source, such neo-Confederate legal argumentation was both surprising and more than a little shocking.  One half expected a band in the back of the room to strike up “Dixie.”

Under HB808, nonprofit groups are no longer afforded the right to discuss the public acts of their elected leaders—an activity that the IRS acknowledges is appropriate for 501c3 organizations. In fact, under this proposed bill, the mere mention of the name of an elected official in a mailer ninety days before an election puts an organization at risk of losing its state tax exemption.

Yet, this is precisely the kind of educational work that legislative leaders Martinez and Senator Michael Sanchez seek to quash. Along with SB652, which would allow legislators to file suit and get court injunctions against groups doing educational mailings they don’t like, Sanchez and Martinez have unleashed a perfect storm of new laws to stop criticism of legislators.

Given the glacial progress of ethics reform legislation this session, the mad dash to pass these Politician Protection Acts is all the more remarkable.

Non-profit organizations play an essential role in New Mexico.  Typically, these are the advocacy groups who give voice to those with the least power – people without health insurance, the homeless, the victims of domestic violence.  It’s worth noting that HB808 targets non-profit organizations only.  It leaves alone big corporations, like SunCal, that spend massive amounts on PR campaigns to sway public opinion in support of huge tax breaks for themselves.

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