-- by Brendan Fischer and Nick Surgey --
In anticipation of protests at ALEC's recent meeting in Oklahoma City, state legislators were handed a set of talking points that read "The American Legislative Exchange Council recognizes the first amendment rights of free speech and assembly, and asks that _____ do the same," apparently to prepare legislators for press questions about citizen activism. But ALEC didn't live up to those spoon-fed talking points: ALEC assembled a dossier of disfavored reporters and activists, kicked reporters out of its conference who might write unfavorable stories, and managed to boot a community forum critical of ALEC from its reserved room.
In what might be the biggest anti-ALEC rally yet, the ALEC legislators and lobbyists arriving at the Renaissance Hotel on May 2 were greeted by a wave of protesters that outnumbered the conference attendees.
More than 600 firefighters, teachers, environmentalists, and church leaders carried signs reading "ALEC is Not OK" and chanting "backroom deals are ALEC's game/sweetheart deals for corporate gain," while a giant inflatable pig wearing a banner reading "Hi, my name is ALEC" floated overhead. Two big rigs adorned with Teamsters logos circled the convention center, honking their horns and blowing air brakes. Harold A. Schaitberger, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the crowd that ALEC's "sole purpose is to develop the most anti-worker, anti-employee, anti-union, anti-middle class, pro-business, pro corporation policies, legislation and agenda possible."
Inside, white men in dark suits milled in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel and the neighboring Cox Convention Center. Laughter floated through the hotel bar as corporate lobbyists (with a "private sector" tag on their name badge) huddled with state legislators (wearing "public sector" tags).
Fresh-faced interns hustled through the crowds, appearing exhilarated to be in the midst of dealmaking and power brokerage. Oklahoma City Police Officers in full uniform -- but reportedly off-duty and paid by ALEC -- stopped anyone not wearing a name badge from entering ALEC's sections of the convention center.
"We Know Who You Are"
On the morning of May 3, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin -- an ALEC "Legislator of the Year" in 2009 -- gave the ALEC meeting's keynote address. The short, relatively generic speech was the only portion of the ALEC event open to the press: the task force meetings where prospective "model bills" are discussed and adopted were entirely closed-door and guarded by police.
Center for Media and Democracy Research Director Nick Surgey obtained press credentials at the ALEC registration desk. As he ascended the escalator towards the room where Governor Fallin was speaking, though, he was spotted by two ALEC staffers, and within minutes approached by a uniformed Oklahoma City police officer.
"I need those credentials," the officer said.
"I registered," Surgey replied.
"No, you didn't," said a female ALEC staffer, who was accompanying the officer.
"I did, downstairs," he said.
"It was... you shouldn't have been able to."
The reason Surgey shouldn't have been allowed to register, according to the ALEC staffer:
"Because we know who you are."
ALEC's Most Wanted
How does ALEC know who Surgey is?
CMD later obtained a document titled "OKC anti-ALEC photos" at the ALEC conference.
The page featured the pictures and names of eight people, four of whom work with CMD, including Surgey, CMD's general counsel Brendan Fischer and its Executive Director Lisa Graves, as well as CMD contributor Beau Hodai.
It is not known whether the photo array of people who have reported on or criticized ALEC was distributed to ALEC members or shared with Oklahoma City law enforcement.
Other targets on the document included The Nation's Lee Fang, who has written articles critical of ALEC, and Sabrina Stevens, an education activist who spoke out in an ALEC task force meeting last November. Also featured were Calvin Sloan of People for the American Way and Gabe Elsner of Checks and Balances Project, both of whom are ALEC detractors.
The name of ALEC Events Director Sarah McManamon was in the top corner, indicating the document was printed from her Google account.
Press Cannot Attend ALEC Meetings Because They Are "Going to Write an Article about It"
Although ALEC knew Surgey's name, the courtesy was not reciprocated.
"Can I ask your name?" Surgey asked the ALEC staffer who challenged his press credentials.
"Erm, why?" she replied.
"Is there any reason you wouldn't want to tell me your name?"
"Yeah, because I know who you are," she said.
The staffer -- whose organization had developed talking points claiming to support the First Amendment, which protects a free and vibrant press -- added:
"Because you're going to write an article about it."
Less than ten minutes after registering as press, Surgey had his credentials revoked and was ejected from the ALEC meeting by a police officer. As he was escorted away, the ALEC staffer repeated: "We know exactly who you are."
Even before the Oklahoma meeting ALEC had been taking steps to keep its proceedings secret. It sent advance agendas to legislators via a Box.com link, making the records more difficult to obtain via public records requests, and most legislators told CMD they did not have a single ALEC-related record in their office that could be released under the public records law. In March, ALEC posted some of its model bills online in a shallow effort to appear "transparent," but its actions suggest the organization is far more committed to secrecy.
Does ALEC Really Support Freedom of Assembly?
ALEC's efforts to limit the rights it claims to support did not end there.
Months before the ALEC meeting last week, a coalition of Oklahoma workers and civil rights organizations organized a screening of the Bill Moyers "United States of ALEC" documentary and a community forum to take place on May 3. The film was to be screened during the ALEC meeting but in a separate section of the Cox Convention Center. Speakers included representatives of CMD, AFSCME, Common Cause, a local church, the ACLU, and other groups.
The screening and panel was open to the public. Even ALEC members could attend.
But less than 24 hours before the event -- which constituted a basic expression of free assembly -- ALEC gave the community meeting the boot.
The hotel told organizers that ALEC invoked a clause in its contract allowing it the right to any rooms within the convention center, even those reserved by other groups. The ALEC community panel was moved from a room appropriate for a movie screening and panel discussion, and onto the floor of a stadium typically used for ice hockey (and which was kept at a temperature more appropriate for ice hockey than a movie screening).
"We were shocked," said Debra Wojtek, communications director at the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, who planned the event. "We had a signed contract for that room, and thought that a contract was a contract. But apparently not for ALEC." Because ALEC didn't actually use the room after claiming a right to it, Wojtek said, the AFL-CIO is considering legal action against ALEC for interference with contract.
Oklahomans Say "ALEC Is Not OK"
Despite the change in venue and the room's frigid temperature, the May 3 screening and community panel attracted a sizable and engaged crowd.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association teacher's union, told the crowd via Skype that ALEC has a "systematic approach to pushing a corporate agenda in all aspects of public policy."
Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the Oklahoma ACLU, highlighted ALEC's support for bills to make it harder for Americans to vote through voter ID restrictions (and its promotion of sham "voter fraud" claims), and is not buying ALEC's claim that it has abandoned its voter suppression projects. "If ALEC were really withdrawing its support for voter ID, they could use their elected official proxies to announce that fraud is not a real problem, and that these laws are unnecessary," he said. "But they have not."
Jane Carter, an economist at AFSCME, identified the problems with the ALEC privatization agenda, particularly the Public-Private Fair Competition Act, a "forced privatization" bill that requires public services be turned over to corporate control if private industry claims they can do the service; this bill was recently introduced in Michigan. Phillip Martin of Progress Texas described how ALEC's healthcare agenda -- particularly its adoption of the Health Care Compact, which asserts state control over health care -- could be used to thwart federal healthcare reform.
Dr. George Young Senior, a Pastor at the Holy Temple Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, highlighted how ALEC is where the struggles of communities of color, workers, environmentalists and others converged -- and how people need to unite against the forty-year-old organization to fight back.
"If we let this go on for another forty years," he said, "next time they won't just move us out of our room, they will kick us out of the whole building!"