Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday vetoed a bill that would ban entities with foreign government ownership from electioneering in ballot campaigns. In doing so, she seemed to echo arguments made by defenders of the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision that has unleashed a torrent of campaign spending in U.S. elections.
She argued, in part, that companies with foreign government ownership have a right to be heard in ballot campaigns and that voters benefit from hearing from them.
“Government is rarely justified in restricting the kind of information to which the citizenry should have access in the context of an election, and particularly a ballot initiative,” she wrote. “L.D. 194 would deprive voters of information and opinion from those entities covered by its prohibitions during the referendum process. The theory is that what these entities have to say is categorically inappropriate for consideration; that it is somehow tainted, should be declared ‘interference,’ and that voters must be shielded from it. That is a theory I reject.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy took a similar view when writing the majority opinion in the Citizens United case.
“Quite apart from the purpose or effect of regulating content, moreover, the Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the Government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The Government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.”
Of course, Kennedy was talking about speech by American corporations, while Mills is defending the speech of those controlled by foreign-owned governments. Supporters of the bill, which was inspired by Hydro-Quebec’s $10 million campaign for Central Maine Power’s transmission corridor, have argued that such speech protections in the democratic process are reserved for domestic entities, not those owned by foreign governments.
The governor also made a curious claim that the bill would affect several Maine companies.
“Entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers,” Mills wrote. “They include Stratton Lumber, Woodland Pulp and Paper, Backyard Farms, McCain Foods, and Sprague Energy, to name just a few. Legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, information, and opinion.”
However, the bill would have applied to companies with 10% or more of foreign government ownership, but not foreign corporate owenership. Despite calls from interest groups that viewed the proposal as a way to limit corporate influence in elections -- and counteract the effect of Citizens United -- drafters of the bill purposely struck languagethat would have made the electioneering prohibition apply to companies with foreign investment or ownership.
Maine Public has thus far been unable to find evidence that any of the companies cited by the governor have ownership by foreign governments.
All of them either have foreign investment or foreign ownership.
A spokesperson for the governor said the governor listed the companies to demonstrate that foreign investment in Maine companies is “pervasive” and that identifying sources of investment would be difficult and impractical.
“But more importantly, her fundamental concern about the legislation is that it positions the government to restrict what the people may hear and the kind of information to which people should have access in the context of an election and, thus, she believes, it is bad policy and likely unconstitutional,” the spokesperson said.