Courage, Cowardice, And Intimidation
The headlines will say this is a story about voter fraud and billboards.
But it's really a story about citizenship, free speech, corporate cowardice, and the triumph of political intimidation.
It is also a story about a family that faced one of the most difficult and painful choices of their lives.
Less than a week after defending voter fraud billboards as completely factual, legal expressions of free speech, Clear Channel caved to pressure from activist groups and will remove the billboards. To recap: the billboards read simply, “Voter Fraud is a Crime,” and that voter fraud is punishable in Wisconsin by 3 1/2 years in prison or a $10,000 fine. Which is absolutely accurate.
But critics claimed that the billboards were somehow racist and were targeted at minority communities. But as Kevin Binversie pointed out, "numerous versions of the billboards also have been spotted in rural parts of the state along the U.S. 41 corridor between Fond du Lac to Green Bay and along Interstate 94 from Waukesha to Eau Claire."
Is voter fraud a crime in Wisconsin? Yes. Is it punishable by the jail time and a fine? Yes.
So is informing the public about the laws already on the books racist?
Last time I checked, not exactly.
Here is how Clear Channel is trying to spin this story:
Jim Cullinan, vice president of corporate communications for Clear Channel Outdoor, said in a statement: "We reviewed the situation, and in light of the fact that these billboards violate our policy of not accepting anonymous political ads, we asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy.
"The client thought the best solution was to take the boards down, so we are in the process of removing them."
This compounds corporate cowardice with dishonesty.
I know, because on Friday night I spoke at length with the head of the "family foundation" that paid for the billboards.
He called me to say that Clear Channel was buckling under enormous political pressure from the left and had presented him with an ultimatum: either disclose his family's identity or have the billboards removed.
He and his wife briefly discussed the choice and quickly decided that they were not going to back down, even though he knew that he and his family would be subject to a firestorm of controversy and personal vilification. A quick Google search of voter fraud billboards yielded hundreds of thousands of hits. I suppose you could say that he and wife were naive: they had thought they were simply being good citizens providing important information about ballot integrity. They had trusted the integrity and their contract with Clear Channel. And now they had a decision to make.
They did not want to back down.
The head of the foundation read me a statement about his decision to go public and agreed to post it on this website. It was a powerful declaration of free speech, the importance of election integrity, and the responsibility of voters in civil society. He understood that this would become a national story and that it would affect both his family and his business, but said that he felt it was worth it. He said he would send it to me early Saturday.
But that night, his children expressed strong objections, fearing not only for their parents's safety, but also for the safety of their grandchildren, who they felt might be put at risk by the forced disclosure of the family's name and involvement in the billboards. Reluctantly, he and his wife concluded that they could no go forward with exposing their family.
Far from thinking that removing the billboard was the "best solution," he felt betrayed by Clear Channel, frustrated by the bullying, but reluctant to put his children and grandchildren at any risk.
As he explained to me:
"Our children expressed grave concerns for their own safety, and we had to respect that above all.
"The one thing we accomplished was education. There are millions of Americans who now know the penalties for illegal voting are significant. So it was a victory of sorts."
So, in the end, the intimidation won out. Not a proud moment for the country.
Just last week, Clear Channel released this statement:
"Clear Channel Outdoor doesn't comment on our advertisers campaigns so we have no comment on these ads. The advertiser put into their contract to remain anonymous. It is our policy to require any advertiser - including political advertisers -- to have a disclaimer which identifies themselves on the creative. This was not done on this ad which was a mistake, but we can't change the contract now and the ads will remain up. This is a free speech issue since the ads are factual and are not attack ads – attack an individual or group."