Appalling: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has demanded papers of “major associations and think tanks involved in climate skepticism” that may be in the files of the ExxonMobil Corp. including groups to which Exxon has never given a dollar [The Hill; Mike Bastasch, Daily Caller] One of her targets, Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, responded with extremely rude language entirely unprintable in this space [same] Meanwhile, 19 Democratic members of Congress from California including Reps. Ted Lieu and Zoe Lofgren have written a letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris urging her to continue full speed ahead with her probe into wrongful climate opinion and to pay no attention to critics’ cries that the First Amendment might somehow be relevant [same] Attorney general Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands is fighting a sanctions motion by the Competitive Enterprise Institute over his overreaching subpoena [WSJ editorial] As for “the claim by activist groups and liberal politicians that they are doing to Exxon Mobil what they did to tobacco,” does that mean they’re planning on cartelizing the oil industry and bolstering its profits while making sure billions in contingent fees get siphoned off to the lawyers among their political donors? [Holman Jenkins, Wall Street Journal] Earlier here, here, etc., etc.
The editorial board of USA Today sees New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s probe as an “exercise in politics” and says it raises “serious First Amendment concerns” [USA Today] Concur, more or less: Washington Post editorial board (“Exxon deserves criticism, but it didn’t commit a crime…. Legitimate scientific inquiry depends on allowing strong, even unfair, criticism of the claims that scientists make.”) Related: Adam Freedman, City Journal (“bid to criminalize skepticism.”)
- Biggest recruit yet for climate recoupment suits: NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio sues blaming five oil companies for Superstorm Sandy [Seth Barron/City Journal, John Timmer/ArsTechnica, WSJ; Stephen Bainbridge on parallel divestment effort]
- California cities/counties suing oil companies: climate change will be our ruin. Same cities/counties selling bonds to investors: risk? what risk? [Andrew Scurria/WSJ; John O’Brien/Forbes] Santa Cruz joins several other Bay Area counties in action [Nicholas Ibarra, Santa Cruz Sentinel]
- Can’t spell “Oedipal” without “O-i-l”: Rockefeller heirs bankroll #ExxonKnew crusade against great-granddad’s company [Reeves Wiedeman, New York mag]
- Same article takes disbelieving tone about possibility that state AGs’ campaign might trample anyone’s First Amendment rights [memory refresher] More about that in this Margaret (Peggy) Little and Andrew Grossman 2016 Federalist Society podcast and my Twitter thread about it;
- National Association of Manufacturers launches legal initiative to push back against industrywide and attorney-general tort, nuisance, and public-recoupment suits, notably on climate and lead paint [John Siciliano, Washington Examiner; Linda Kelly, The Hill; NAM’s Manufacturing Accountability Project and its coverage of the art of “climate attribution,” the early failed Kivalina suit (more on which), origins of Global Warming Legal Action Project]
- Pssst, Vice — in profiling Steve Berman you might want to be aware that a few other attorneys claim some minor role in also having “won a $200 billion settlement from tobacco companies in the 90s” [compare claims of lawyers organizing opioid suits]
- “Keeping this case in a pending status gives us one hell of a club” — how Nixon used antitrust to intimidate media [Guy Rolnik, Stigler Center ProMarket] For ruthlessness in bullying hostile press, Nixon and LBJ had nothing on FDR and his New Dealers [David Beito]
- In which I display impatience with Claremont Colleges student no-platformers who signed a letter defending speaker shout-downs and demanding that conservative student journalists be disciplined [Scott Greenfield, more from Heather Mac Donald, earlier on shout-down of Mac Donald] More: statement by FIRE president Greg Lukianoff on situation at UC Berkeley. And: the campus speech wars reach Hood College [my new Free State Notes post]
- Three reasons, none of them flattering, why GOP lawmakers might sign onto wacky tollgate-for-adult-material scheme [Elizabeth Nolan Brown; Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, Daily Beast with more on promoter Chris Sevier and so-called Human Trafficking Prevention Act]
- American Legislative Exchange Council, conservative group of state legislators that has itself been a target of anti-speech campaigns, launches Center to Protect Free Speech with focus on campus speech, donor privacy and commercial speech;
- Flemming Rose: “I’m Not Willing to Sacrifice Freedom of Expression on the Altar of Cultural Diversity” [Reason interview with Nick Gillespie]
- “But is it not shocking that virtuous characters should be defamed?” replied the Baron. “Let their actions refute such libels,” continued the President. An anecdote of Jefferson and Humboldt [David Post]
Are you now, or have you ever been, a supporter of the Hoover Institution, the Mercatus Center, the Heritage Foundation, or the Acton Institute? Lachlan Markay, Free Beacon:
Democratic senators have been assigned conservative nonprofit groups to call out by name on the chamber floor in speeches on Monday and Tuesday criticizing corporations and advocacy groups for opposing Democratic climate policies, internal emails reveal.
…[Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse and his allies, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), have crafted a schedule for floor speeches on Monday and Tuesday that assigns each participating Senator at least one group to go after by name.
Most of the groups have already been targeted by state Democratic officials that have undertaken a coordinated legal campaign against oil giant ExxonMobil since last year. Many were named in subpoenas sent to the company by state attorneys general as part of that effort.
The ringmaster, once again, is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — yes, that Sheldon Whitehouse, whose hometown Providence Journal rightly called out his current campaign to sic the law on improper climate opinion as likely to “have a chilling effect on free speech, by intimidating dissenters into silence.” The leader on the House side is Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), also getting to be a familiar name.
One reason this is more sinister than your ordinary political sideshow: the proposed concurrent resolution urges right-leaning nonprofits “to cooperate with active or future investigations” of purportedly unlawful opinion-slinging. One of the most junior senators, Gary Peters of Michigan, apparently drew the short straw in the heresy posse and was assigned to attack my own Cato Institute (which publishes this site) at 6:30 this evening.
The senators participating in this appalling exercise besides Sens. Whitehouse, Reid, and Peters, all Democrats, are Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Barbara Boxer of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Chuck Schumer of New York, Al Franken of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Chris Coons of Delaware.
Some early reactions: “All that is lacking are their public confessions” — Ronald Bailey at Reason (whose associated Reason Foundation is among the targets). “‘Assigned’ groups to attack? That sounds like middle school mean girl behavior.” [C.B. on Facebook] Peter Roff at U.S. News on how the Senators can’t (yet) make dissent illegal but can make it costly. And a reminder: the “Exxon Knew” crowd knew Whitehouse’s RICO-for-speech theory was wrong because their own allies had told them, but went ahead anyway.
More, Matt Welch at Reason:
…Since the targets of this shaming exercise are not being afforded the courtesy to rebut the charges in the forum at which they are being smeared, consider this a prebuttal…
This coordinated campaign would be an assault on free speech even if it were not drenched in conspiratorial inaccuracy. Democratic lawmakers, attorneys general, and activists are systematically singling out free-market think tanks for potential criminal prosecution and one-sided disclosure requirements based on the content of the think tanks’ research and commentary. They are literally trying to criminalize dissent. If successful, they will establish as “fraud” or “racketeering” any future think-tank work that runs afoul of political orthodoxy. …
Sadly, this heavy-handed act of government intimidation will likely go as unnoticed as Hillary Clinton’s long track record against free speech. Why? Because generally speaking both the mainstream press and the organized left reserve their First Amendment outrage for politicians they disagree with. Their silence is shameful, and deafening.
[Updated to correct error on Lachlan Markay’s name, sorry]
- No, the “government can’t make you use ‘zhir’ or ‘ze’ in place of ‘she’ and ‘he'” [Josh Blackman, Washington Post; earlier on NYC human relations commission guidelines; Hans Bader/CEI on new D.C. rules along similar lines]
- Matt Welch on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the “casually authoritarian” movement to harass and legally penalize climate deniers [Reason] While styled as fraud probe, AGs’ climate denial investigation is essentially a SLAPP suit meant to silence advocacy [Ronald Bailey; letter from 13 attorneys general critical of probe] As one skirmish ends, expect wider war to continue, as Virgin Islands AG withdraws widely flayed subpoena against our friends at Competitive Enterprise Institute [John Sexton] Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey now chasing “right-leaning groups that have never received a penny from Exxon” including local political foe Beacon Hill Institute [Hans Bader/CEI] We’re the ones asking questions around here: AGs dodge public record/FOIA requests on probe [Chris Horner/Fox News]
- “N.Y. Senate passes bill banning funding for university student groups that ‘encourage’ ‘hate speech'” [Eugene Volokh]
- Licensing and other laws often restrict what members of professions and occupations can say, a problem that deserves more and better First Amendment scrutiny than it’s gotten [Timothy Sandefur, Regulation]
- Ninth Circuit will review ruling striking down Idaho ag-gag law [Baylen Linnekin on appellate amicus, Idaho Statesman, NPR last year]
- Ken White on why it’s okay to loathe Gawker and its actions but still see the danger in Thiel/Hogan episode [L.A. Times, related Dan McLaughlin, earlier]
“Today a US District Court ruled in favor of Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s lawsuit against California Attorney General Kamala Harris, ruling that her demands for the Foundation to hand over its list of members and supporters is unconstitutional.” [AFP] We’ve repeatedly covered Harris’s unprecedented drive to demand disclosure of donor lists by nonprofits that carry on activities in California, a step likely to lead to private and public retaliation against individuals and groups revealed to have donated to unpopular or controversial causes.
As the WSJ notes in an editorial, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real “declared her disclosure requirement an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights,” finding that there was scant evidence the disclosures were necessary to prevent charity fraud, that (contrary to assurances) her office had “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality” of nonprofits’ donor lists, some 1,400 of which Harris’s office had in fact published online. As for retaliation against donors, “although the Attorney General correctly points out that such abuses are not as violent or pervasive as those encountered in NAACP v. Alabama or other cases from [the civil rights] era,” he wrote, “this Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members.”
A plaintiff’s lawyer and union ally, Harris recently surfaced as an apparently key player in the alliance of state attorneys general intent on using criminal investigatory powers to probe so-called climate denial at non-profit research and advocacy groups as well as at energy companies like ExxonMobil. That makes at least two episodes in which Harris has signaled interest in unprecedented and aggressive steps to pry open the internal workings of private advocacy organizations that take positions adverse to hers. Harris is a leading contender in the Democratic Senate primary to succeed California Senator Barbara Boxer.
Update: Now expanded and adapted into a longer post at Cato.
As we noted on Friday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, more recently joined by several other state attorneys general, has pursued an investigation of the ExxonMobil corporation and its links to “climate denial” that has now resulted in a subpoena (from the attorney general of the U. S. Virgin Islands, Claude E. Walker) demanding ten years’ worth of internal documents from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI, which issued a statement last week (with the text of the subpoena) vowing to resist the legal attack, has a further statement and links here; CEI’s Myron Ebell also recorded a Cato podcast (“fishing expedition… threatens our future… designed to shut us up”) with interviewer Caleb Brown.
Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View, calls the new developments “an attempt to criminalize advocacy”:
State attorneys general including Walker held a press conference last week to talk about the investigation of ExxonMobil and explain their theory of the case. And yet, there sort of wasn’t a theory of the case. They spent a lot of time talking about global warming, and how bad it was, and how much they disliked fossil fuel companies. They threw the word “fraud” around a lot. But the more they talked about it, the more it became clear that what they meant by “fraud” was “advocating for policies that the attorneys general disagreed with.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman gave the game away when he explained that they would be pursuing completely different theories in different jurisdictions — some under pension laws, some consumer protection, some securities fraud. It is traditional, when a crime has actually been committed, to first establish that a crime has occurred, and then identify a perpetrator. When prosecutors start running that process backwards, it’s a pretty good sign that you’re looking at prosecutorial power run amok….
The rule of law, and our norms about free speech, represent a sort of truce between both sides. We all agree to let other people talk, because we don’t want to live in a world where we ourselves are not free to speak. Because we do not want to be silenced by an ambitious prosecutor, we should all be vigilant when ambitious prosecutors try to silence anyone else.
This investigation is intended to silence and chill any opposition. It is disgraceful and contemptible behavior by public officials who are willing to exploit their power to achieve ideological ends….
Given the coalition that has been formed by state attorneys general to conduct a grand inquisition against climate change deniers, this subpoena from the Virgin Islands attorney general is probably just the first assault in their quasi-religious war against unbelievers. Researchers, scientists, think tanks, universities, and anyone else who works or speaks in this area should be aware that they may soon become a target of these malicious investigations.
As the Washington state supreme court noted in Rickert v. State Pub. Disclosure Commission (2007), our forefathers “did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us” in the realm of politics.
A sobering aspect of the state AGs’ crusade is what is taking place outside of courtrooms: they are pressuring companies to cut off donations to nonprofit groups that employ “climate-change deniers.” … New York’s and California’s attorneys general have investigated Exxon for making donations to think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Schneiderman complains that these two specifically are “even more aggressive climate change deniers” than the run of the mill. (Ironically, while these large organizations include a few people labeled as “climate change deniers,” they focus mostly on issues having nothing to do with climate change.)
…even if being a “climate change denier” were a crime (rather than constitutionally protected speech, as it in fact is), a donation to a nonprofit that employs such a person would not be a crime.
In February we noted Bader’s strong argument that a “prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment” in itself even when “eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action.”
I’m also quoted in a piece in Vermont Watchdog by Michael Bielawski and Bruce Parker that came out just before the subpoena report, on some of the issues in the investigation.
The campaign to attach legal consequences to supposed “climate denial” has now crossed a fateful line:
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) today denounced a subpoena from Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands that attempts to unearth a decade of the organization’s materials and work on climate change policy. This is the latest effort in an intimidation campaign to criminalize speech and research on the climate debate, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore….
The subpoena requests a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.
CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman said the group “will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena. It is an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association.” More coverage of the subpoena at the Washington Times and Daily Caller.
A few observations:
- If the forces behind this show-us-your-papers subpoena succeed in punishing (or simply inflicting prolonged legal harassment on) groups conducting supposedly wrongful advocacy, there’s every reason to think they will come after other advocacy groups later. Like yours.
- This article in the Observer details the current push to expand the probe of climate advocacy, which first enlisted New York AG Eric Schneiderman and then California’s Kamala Harris, into a broader coalition of AGs, with Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands just having signed on. More than a dozen others, such as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, seem to be signaling support but have not formally jumped in. More: Peggy Little, Federalist Society.
- CEI people, many of them longtime friends of this site, have been active critics of the Schneiderman effort, with Hans Bader, a senior attorney there, highly critical just a week ago.
- In these working groups of attorneys general, legal efforts are commonly parceled out among the states in a deliberate and strategic way, with particular tasks being assigned to AGs who have comparative advantage in some respect (such as an unusually favorable state law to work with, or superior staff expertise or media access). Why would one of the most politically sensitive tasks of all — opening up a legal attack against CEI, a long-established nonprofit well known in Washington and in libertarian and conservative ideological circles — be assigned to the AG from a tiny and remote jurisdiction? Is it that a subpoena coming from the Virgin Islands is logistically inconvenient to fight in some way, or that local counsel capable of standing up to this AG are scarce on the ground there, or that a politician in the Caribbean is less exposed to political backlash from CEI’s friends and fans than one in a major media center? Or what?
- I recommend checking out the new Free Speech and Science Project, which intends to fight back against criminalization of advocacy by, among other things, organizing legal defense and seeking to hold officials accountable for misusing the law to attack advocacy.
- This is happening at a time of multiple, vigorous, sustained legal attacks on what had been accepted freedoms of advocacy and association. As I note in a new piece at Cato, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just demanded that the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate several large corporations that have criticized her pet plan to impose fiduciary legal duties on retirement advisors, supposedly on the ground that it is a securities law violation for them to be conveying to investors a less alarmed view of the regulations’ effect than they do in making their case to the Labor Department. This is not particularly compelling as securities law, but it’s great as a way to chill speech by publicly held businesses.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:
A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.
In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.
Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:
These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.
Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.
An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.
[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]