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Astroturfing for Fun and Profit

Posted by Jim Johnson on

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Last week another Tea Party member of the United States Senate embarked on the latest iteration of playing politics without governing.

Senator Rand Paul (R) from, of course, Kentucky joined forces with the ever so biased (and tax exempt) conservative group, FreedomWorks, in a class action lawsuit against President Barack Obama, NSA, National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, Keith Alexander and the Director of the FBI, James Comey.

The suit, which manages to violate procedural and substantive law, is yet another example of marginal fringe Tea Party candidates who engage in political grandstanding at the expense of actual governing. Paul, an accomplished plagiarizer, stood before microphones outside the Federal District Court in Washington D.C., with cell phones in each hand announcing his intent to protect us from unconstitutional government surveillance. His suit, however, appears to have less to do with the Constitution and more to do with his run for the White House in 2016.

While rational minds might agree that perhaps the NSA has overstepped boundaries with respect to the collection of metadata, the American public is not convinced. According to a Quinnipiac University survey completed in January, “48% of registered voters support the metadata program, compared to 47% who opposed the collection. Five percent said they’re unsure or have no opinion.”

Senator Paul has joined forces with FreedomWorks and the recently failed candidate for governor of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, to file an action ostensibly on behalf of every single American. According to the Daily Mail, “The legal action, officially titled Rand Paul v. Barack Obama, hit the court running with at least 350,000 plaintiffs, according to a source close to the process. Paul is aiming for 10 million, judging from a message on two websites run by his political staff.”

Claiming that his suit will “make it to the Supreme Court”, Paul seemed to recognize that the nature of his class action suit gives rise to a host of legal problems. He told CNN, “We didn’t define the class. This is defined by the arrogance of government that has decided that the Fourth Amendment really allows a warrant to be written for everybody’s phone records. It shows the enormity and the egregiousness of the government’s intrusion.”

The lawsuit is little more than “astroturfing”, a technique widely used by fringe right organizations (usually tax exempt) who wrap themselves in the flag, the Constitution and hackneyed phrases about threats to “American values”, while raking in millions of dollars for specific political purposes. According to George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, “astroturfing frequently involves the use of 'front groups'”. He writes, “Front groups is one astroturfing technique, which typically creates the appearance of being an organization that serves the public interest, while masking a corporate sponsor.” Enter Dr. Paul and friends.

At every opportunity on the day of filing, Senator Paul directed people to become plaintiffs by signing up through his political action committee (RAND PAC) website. How convenient… His political website sounds more like a late night infomercial promising a 50 pound weight loss without exercising and while existing on a diet of sugar cubes than it does of an effort to legitimately address a constitutional issue.

At one point it states: “The Obama Administration has shown it can’t be trusted. They are dead-set on hiding the truth from the American people. If you and I are going to stop them we are going to need the help of thousands of patriotic Americans. This is the moment you and I begin to save the country from dishonest politicians and bureaucrats”….The site then shamelessly has boxes one can check to send RANDPAC a donation ranging from $25 to $2,500.00. Of course by this time RANDPAC already has your name, your address, your valid email address and a host of other information far more suited to building a presidential campaign of “like-minded” people than it is to actually addressing a legitimate legal cause. Astroturfing at perhaps its finest… Rand Paul at perhaps his purest.

From a legal perspective Paul, Cuccinelli and FreedomWorks have placed themselves in a classic Hobson’s Choice. Either they are completely ignorant of class action litigation or they are intentionally filing a lawsuit doomed to failure and frivolous in nature. Either outcome is not flattering.

Class action suits require first standing and then a commonality among plaintiffs. Merely owning a cell phone does not give rise to either. Adi Robertson writing in The Verge adroitly assessed the likelihood of success on the merits for this litigation: “So far, damages and injury from NSA data-gathering have been hard to establish even on an individual basis. Several groups have brought lawsuits against the administration by saying a particular individual organization or person has suffered because of surveillance. But even for Verizon customers, who have a leaked court order to back them up, there's no definitive way to tell whether the NSA actually collected metadata from them, and the claim is too hypothetical for many judges. If Paul wants to go forward with the suit, he'll need to calculate and prove similar damages for every single member of his class.”

The suit would have to withstand a class action test known as “Dukes Commonality”, a Supreme Court holding in the case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, v Dukes, et al. In that matter a class of 1,500,000 individuals sought relief from alleged discrimination by Wal-Mart. The Supreme Court essentially held that attempting to find commonality among a class that size was not consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. And of course, the class action would require the proof of damages… not merely thinking your call may have been date timed and stamped, but real damages. Many lawsuits have been filed on this very same issue and many have failed.

As I previously stated, Paul, FreedomWorks and Cuccinelli are either oblivious to reality or are engaged in a highly public version of astroturfing. The Tea Party in general, and poster-children for their cause specifically, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Steve Stockman, Mike Lee, Steve King and Jason Chaffetz waste American tax dollars, disrupt the legislative process and are destroying the Republican party.

There once was status and respect accorded to members of Congress. Many were accomplished, competent and truly assumed courageous positions on meaningful issues which placed their political future in jeopardy. Such was the right thing to do for the nation. No longer.

Courage is a term which is seldom found in the legislature and competence is apparently optional… when filing the lawsuit, Paul et al., managed to misspell “The District of Columbia” in the caption. Perhaps if they spent more time within the District involved and invested in the process of governing instead of pursuing maniacal self-interest, they would know that the word “Columbia” contains an “l”.

Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.


Currently Speaking host Andy Rapp

Veteran journalist Andy Rapp has been hosting Currently Speaking since 1999.

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