AT&T apparently has a new slogan. It doesn't appear at the end of its ads, but it's the gist of a recent letter my former AT&T colleague Jim Cicconi sent to Senator Dick Durbin.
To wit, "I want to be left alone."
Durbin had asked AT&T if it agreed with “stand your ground” legislation a company-funded organization was recommending as a national model.
The organization in question is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
ALEC is a nominally non-partisan organization that produces "model legislation" to promote "free markets" and "limited government" at the state level. About 200 of it's "model policies" become law every year. It is funded largely by companies that benefit from said "free markets" and limited "government," i.e., regulation.
Mr. Cicconi is the man with the company checkbook for ALEC's purposes. He also commands an army of state and federal lobbyists. When I worked with him, Cicconi had a war chest in excess of $60 million. It's probably more now, and he knows how to spend it to get what he wants.
One way he spends it is on organizations like ALEC that give him a voice in the drafting of legislation. One thing he wants is to be left alone as he goes about this task.
That was the point of the letter he sent to Senator Durbin. Cicconi said he considered the senator's question an attack on AT&T's rights to free speech. "Any response to your request," he wrote, "will be used by those interests whose purpose is to pressure corporations to de-fund organizations and political speech with which they disagree."
In other words, Cicconi suggested the real issue at stake is defending a company's right to free speech, not changes to self-defense laws that give people immunity for using deadly force.
The Wall Street Journal, which ran extensive quotes from Cicconi's letter and praised him for refusing to be "blackmailed" or "bullied," wholeheartedly agreed.
As it happens, when the Trayvon Martin case stirred up public concern about stand your ground laws, AT&T quietly told ALEC to cool its jets or, as the Journal put it, to shut down "noneconomic advocacy" that "detracts from the group's core mission."
Frankly, that core mission deserves a long, hard look, especially since the Wall Street Journal and companies like AT&T seem so sensitive about it.
Do we want anonymous corporations paying for "model laws" in such areas as civil justice, commerce, insurance, communications technology, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, human aervices, international relations and tax and fiscal policy?
That's what ALEC -- which started life as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators -- considers its core mission. According to Common Cause, 98% of ALEC's funding comes from the very corporations most affected by laws in those areas. And, according to an ALEC executive quoted in an NPR report, company lobbyists and lawyers work side by side with state legislators in crafting the "model laws."
Companies certainly have the right to fund such activity. According to the Supreme Court, it's a matter of free speech.
And Mr. Ciconni is probably right -- revealing AT&T's funding of such organizations might subject it to criticism or at least uncomfortable questions. But isn't that the price of free speech?
The Wall Street Journal won't print op eds without identifying the economic entanglements of the people who write them. Is it too much to ask that state legislatures do the same for the so-called "model legislation" they're considering?