Weekly Briefing

The politics of intimidation

gene_nichol

State official’s private foundation seeks to bully and silence a powerful critic

There are a lot of disturbing and frustrating things about the group of elected leaders in charge of North Carolina state government at the end of 2013: the willingness to promise one thing on a fundamental issue prior to an election and then blithely do the direct opposite a few months later, the inclination to demonize critics and opponents in the fashion of right-wing radio squawkers, the affinity for “divide and conquer” politics, the willingness to employ a man who raises money in secret from private corporations for political purposes and then put him in charge of handing out public incentives to corporations, and, of course, a list of backward-looking policy choices as long as your arm.

But if there’s one thing that truly sets this group apart, it has to be the introduction of a new brand of what should be rightfully dubbed “intimidation politics.” This is the brand of politics practiced frequently and with little disguise by bullies like Russian President/leader-for-life Vladimir Putin, former Italian boss-man Silvio Berlusconi (and dozens of other autocrats throughout the ages); the kind in which the leader’s “independent” supporters harass and intimidate government critics who dare to question official policies.

Now, obviously, the North Carolina harassment and intimidation is not of the magnitude and viciousness practiced today in Putin’s Russia or in years gone by in Berlusconi’s Italy, but still, consider the recent attack on UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol engineered by the “independent” nonprofit funded almost exclusively by state Budget Director and conservative kingmaker, Art Pope – the private foundation known as the Pope-Civitas Institute.

Nichol, of course, is, among many other things, the Director of the UNC Law School’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and a longtime fiery critic of politicians of both parties, who ignore, abuse or take advantage of the underdogs of society. Together with Rev. William Barber of the state NAACP, Nichol led the 2012 Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina. He’s also been an active participant in Moral Mondays and HK on J movements, a regular opinion page contributor to Raleigh’s News & Observer and a board member of multiple progressive nonprofits – including NC Policy Watch’s parent organization, the North Carolina Justice Center.

Nichol is also, in my personal experience, one of the most intelligent, honorable, passionate, and important spokespersons for social, political and economic justice in 21st Century North Carolina. A marvelous teacher and an old fashioned orator who genuinely “gives” speeches to his audiences, Nichol is a true scholar in all the best senses of the word and a force for good with few rivals in our state. If only our state had a dozen more leaders like him, we’d be exponentially better off.

An intimidating fishing expedition

Recently, however, the Pope-Civitas group filed a public records request to obtain six weeks’ worth of Nichol’s personal email correspondence, phone logs, text messages, and calendar entries. The group won’t say what it thinks it might find with such an absurd fishing expedition, but there can be no doubt as to the actual, ultimate objective, which was spelled out quite accurately in a letter of protest delivered to Gov. McCrory and Pope yesterday on behalf of hundreds of college and university scholars representing 24 separate institutions. Here’s the letter:

To Governor McCrory and State Budget Director Art Pope,

As scholars from institutions of higher education throughout North Carolina and citizens committed to the constitutional right of free speech, we call on you to condemn the Civitas Institute’s demand for six weeks’ worth of personal email correspondence, phone logs, text messages, and calendar entries from Gene Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law.

This request is clearly in retribution for Professor Nichol’s public commentary critical of your administration. We write to both of you because it is public knowledge that, in the words of the Institute for Southern Studies, “Civitas gets over 90 percent of its funding from the Pope family foundation — so much so that the IRS classifies it as a ‘private foundation,’ a designation reserved for nonprofits that depend on a single benefactor.” Thus, citizens may reasonably infer that a sitting administration is using a private tax-exempt nonprofit organization funded by one of its leading officials to retaliate for criticism of its policies and intimidate future dissent. To our knowledge this action is unprecedented in our state’s political history.

Such an attempt at punishing speech ill befits an organization that purports in its mission statement to advance “liberty” and to “empower citizens to become better civic leaders.” Imagine if a nonprofit institution affiliated with an administration of the other party demanded the email of a conservative faculty critic. The Civitas Institute would be outraged; so would we.

Mr. Pope’s foundations are well aware that Professor Nichol is one of many North Carolina scholars who have begun publicly expressing concern about the direction of state policy since your administration took office. We believe the purpose of this action is not simply to retaliate against Professor Nichol but also to discourage future dissent from faculty in higher education. Such abuse of power to suppress critics should be condemned by all people of good will.

Scholars are citizens. Like all Americans, we have the right of free speech, freedom of assembly, and indeed the positive obligation to participate in public life “to form a more perfect Union.” Sometimes, our research expertise also bears directly on policy matters. To support smart policy and draw attention to misconceived or destructive policy is part of our responsibility as trained researchers and writers in a democratic nation.

We, the undersigned, from 61 departments and 24 institutions of higher education, call you to speak out publicly on this matter and to meet with a small delegation of faculty concerned about the future of free speech for employees of our public institutions.

Sincerely,

Click here to see the list of schools, departments and programs represented.

A familiar pattern

That the Pope-Civitas group would be involved in such transparently hostile and intimidating behavior comes, of course, as no surprise. This is the same group that published the photographs (and other personal information) of Moral Monday protesters online and any number of scurrilous attacks on Rev. Barber and the groups behind the movement (including the absurd and outrageous lie that protest organizers had launched Moral Mondays to line their own pockets). It’s also the same group recently shown to have sought a grant from an ultra-conservative funder as part of an effort to manufacture evidence designed to discredit North Carolina’s award-winning Medicaid program – a tactic clearly in concert with the McCrory administration’s longstanding effort to demonize and privatize the successful public program.

Similarly, the sound of crickets chirping (and perhaps a muffled “bwah, ha ha”) from inside the Governor’s mansion in response to the scholars’ letter comes as no surprise either. As with legislative leaders Thom Tillis and Phil Berger before them, neither McCrory nor Pope has ever been willing to acknowledge the criticism welling up across the state against their regressive policies or, much less, engage with critics in meaningful dialogue.

Predictable as this behavior is, however, what’s most disturbing about the attack on Nichol is the extremely worrisome precedent it sets. When the state’s most powerful public officials fund and maintain teams of private political attack groups at their disposal that can assail and intimidate critics – especially those whose very profession is founded upon their ability to think and speak freely – our state is headed down one very troubling road. The state Budget Director can deny all he wants that he has any influence over the actions of a group that he founded, named after his father and funds almost exclusively, but such claims are simply not credible. Anyone who thinks that he couldn’t put a stop to the Pope-Civitas attacks with one phone call (or probably just the mere nod of his head) is laughably deluded.

Going forward   

Senator Bob Rucho has proved quite clearly in recent days why it’s dangerous to compare modern American political developments to the events of dictatorships, so it’s worth reiterating here that neither Pope nor McCrory comes close to Putin or Berlusconi on the political intimidation and bullying meter. That said, both Pope and McCrory should think very, very carefully about the new and very dangerous ground they are breaking in our state and what the impact of that action will be on robust debate in a free society.

Unfortunately, the initial signals are not encouraging.

 

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