Alaska Notebook: Oil-tax repeal foes have right to dissuade signers - and run risk of backlash

June 21, 2013 

Free speech, oil taxes and backlash

Longtime Republican political consultant Art Hackney has hired some people and also recruited volunteers to shadow those gathering signatures for a referendum to repeal Senate Bill 21, the oil tax cut.

Their job is to urge people not to sign the referendum petition in order to keep it off the ballot.

This isn't a common tactic. But as long as the hired hands or volunteers aren't harassing or physically impeding would-be signers, they're exercising their free speech rights. They have a right to try to persuade people not to sign, just as the gatherers have a right to pitch for signatures.

From the gatherers' perspective, they are a nuisance. It's not because of their persuasive powers, but because they create friction and commotion. That works in the foes' favor, to a point, for the simple reason that when many of us go shopping at the bookstore or grocery store we're not looking for a debate but for a book or a gallon of milk. Some of us don't care to converse with a person bearing a clipboard near the store entrance, much less walk into a sidewalk scene of political theater.

It's a hardball tactic. Disrupt the signature process, but within the rough-and-tumble of the democratic process. There's no constitutional guarantee that free speech be polite.

It's a risky tactic as well, because it courts backlash.

Alaskans don't like to be told what to sign or not, or whether they can vote on something or not, even as most accept our constitutional limits on direct democracy. Philosophical differences aside, many Alaskans also don't care for people getting in their faces. It's one thing to invite someone to sign or not sign a petition, initiative or referendum. It's another to jump them when they're going about their daily business and seek to pre-empt their own thinking about the issue. Further, many Alaskans would amend the sign of repeal foes, which urged them not to sign "before you know all the facts." There's a strong counter-argument that says "don't vote before you know all the facts." A signature is not a vote.

Zeal, including the paid kind, can backfire.

-- Frank Gerjevic

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