First Amendment not prominent on Palin résumé
Editor's note: This article was updated Nov. 3.
Sarah Palin’s record as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, as governor and now as
Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate doesn’t show a heavy
involvement with First Amendment issues. What involvement the vice presidential
candidate has had could give First Amendment advocates cause for concern in
several but not all respects.
A former television reporter, Gov. Palin earned an undergraduate degree in
journalism at the University of Idaho before entering public service as a
Wasilla city councilwoman and then mayor. And although the current governor was
a sports rather than investigative reporter, she became known in Alaska politics
as a bipartisan whistleblower — indicating a penchant for bringing government
malfeasance to light.
As the appointed ethics commissioner of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation
Commission beginning in 2003, for example, Palin investigated and filed
complaints against state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich. Ruedrich, a
fellow member of the commission, was accused of conducting party business on
state time and showing favoritism toward some companies regulated by the
According to a Sept. 10 Associated Press report, Palin’s findings were
ignored by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, also a Republican. When Ruedrich resigned
during the investigation, the Alaska Department of Law told Palin to stay quiet
on the matter when she was questioned by reporters because of a confidentiality
law concerning investigations. Palin resigned in January 2004 in part because of
her frustration at being forced to keep silent about the ethics allegations, she
said at the time.
“I'm forced to withhold information from Alaskans, and that goes against what
I believe in as a public servant,” Palin told the Anchorage Daily News in
January 2004. She was vindicated in June 2004 when Ruedrich paid record fines to
the commission for violating conflict-of-interest rules.
After pledging to do so in her campaign for governor, Palin proposed a
comprehensive ethics-reform bill during her first 100 days in office. On July 9,
2007, she signed House Bill 109, which increased restrictions on gifts from
lobbyists and others to legislators and legislative employees. The legislation
also implemented greater requirements for financial and board disclosures from
legislators, public officials and executive-branch board members.
Religion and public life
Gov. Palin’s religious beliefs in relation
to her official duties have come under intense scrutiny.
She told the Associated Press in December 2006 that “I've honestly answered
the questions on what my personal views are on things like abortion and a lot of
controversial issues. I won’t hesitate to answer those questions about what my
personal views are, but I am not one to be out there preaching and forcing my
views on anyone else.”
As Wasilla mayor, Palin organized a day of prayer at the city hall, according to an Associated Press review on Oct. 11.
In her 2006 campaign for governor, Palin said she thought evolution and
creationism should both be taught in public schools, but would not force the
state Board of Education to incorporate creationism into the public school
curriculum. As governor she has kept that promise.
“Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so
important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching
both,” she said in a 2006 gubernatorial debate. However, she later said that she
only meant to say that discussion should be allowed on the topic if the
creationism viewpoint is mentioned.
“I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in
class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum,” she told the Anchorage
Daily News in October 2006.
A Sept. 3 Associated Press article, noting that Palin’s children attend
public schools, said her separation of personal views and policy “reflects a
hands-off attitude by most Alaskans toward mixing government and religion.”
Shortly after her nomination for vice president, the Associated Press
reported that Palin had said “I believe we have a creator” when asked about her
personal views. However, in a Sept. 29 interview with Katie Couric, Palin said
she believed evolution should be taught as “accepted principle.”
“I think [evolution] should be taught as an accepted principle … . I say that
also as the daughter of a school teacher, a science teacher, who has really
instilled in me a respect for science. It should be taught in our schools. And I
won't deny that I see the hand of God in this beautiful creation that is Earth.
But that is not part of the state policy or a local curriculum in a school
district. Science should be taught it science class.”
Palin has voiced support for schools that use faith-based curricula, although
she has not advocated public funding of the material itself. In her 2006
campaign booklet (with Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell), “New Energy for Alaska,” Palin
said all home-school programs across the state should have the same access to
funding for educational materials, regardless of whether or not they included
religion in their curricula.
“The use of privately purchased, faith-based materials should not be a reason
for withholding funding,” she said.
Palin has also supported faith-based groups through securing a $500,000 federal grant from President Bush’s national faith-based initiatives program. Christian charities received funding, but they are monitored by the state to make sure that their community work and worship services are kept separate, said Tara Horton, a special assistant to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, in an Oct. 11 AP report.
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell emphasized that Palin’s support for faith-based initiatives did not favor one religion over another.
“Gov. Palin is motivated by the needs out there, and faith-based and community initiatives are a great way to do that. It matters not to state government what religion people belong to, so long as they are serving the public and the money they receive is used appropriately,” he said in the Oct. 11 article.
Palin’s use of state money to travel to religious events and meetings has been criticized. The AP said Oct. 11 that in its review of Palin’s record, it found more than $13,000 in state-funded expenses for Palin’s attendance at religious events, and that $3,022 of those expenses were used exclusively by Palin and her family to attend Christian gatherings such as services with their congregation in Juneau.
Some of Palin’s expenses were incurred on trips that included religious events, but they were related to the governor’s inaugural ball and an oil-and-gas conference in New Orleans. According to the AP, experts say situations such as these make it difficult to determine when trips to religious events should be covered by the state, but that efforts should be made to separate official from personal business.
“Politicians are entitled to freely exercise their religion while in office, but ethically if not legally that part of her trip ought to not be charged to taxpayers. It’s still fundamentally a religious and spiritual experience she is having,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in the AP report.
The news media have given considerable attendtion to
Palin’s purported foray into the issue of book censorship in public
The Anchorage Daily News reported on Sept. 4 that Wasilla town
librarian Mary Ellen Emmons told her hometown newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley
Frontiersman, in December 1996 that Palin asked her about book-banning
several times, although she never mentioned specific titles. Emmons said that
she refused to consider censorship, and she was fired shortly after Palin took
office. She was later reinstated but resigned in August 1999.
In a Sept. 10 USA Today article, McCain spokesman Taylor Griffin said
that Palin asked the question of Emmons to understand the town’s policy amid
local discussion of the topic at the time.
“Sarah Palin has never asked anyone to ban a book. It shouldn’t be surprising
that the new mayor of a city that had seen recent protests over books and was in
the process of reevaluating the book challenge policies at its library would ask
the librarian what those policies were,” he said.
Wasilla resident Ann Kilkenny, who attended City Council meetings regularly
during that time, said that she did not believe that Palin was merely posing a
“There was no way that I thought it was rhetorical,” Kilkenny told USA
However, according to the Sept. 4 Anchorage Daily News report, the
American Library Association has no record of book challenges or bans from
Palin. June Pinell-Stephens, chairwoman of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom
Committee, told the Anchorage Daily News that she had no complaints on file, nor
records of phone conversations with Emmons, the Alaska Library Association’s
president at the time, concerning the issue.
USA Today reported on Sept. 10 that although a false list of Wasilla’s
banned books was posted on various online sources, the City of Wasilla states on
its Web site that none of the library’s books have been banned.
In a related area, Palin has supported a parental right to prevent children
from being exposed to offensive material in school. In her response to the Eagle
Forum 2006 Gubernatorial Candidate Questionnaire’s query on whether or not she
supported allowing parents to “opt out” their children from certain curricula,
books, classes, or surveys, she said, “Yes. Parents should have the ultimate
control over what their children are taught.”
Government secrecy, access
Palin has kept gubernatorial campaign
promises to publish state spending records and online communications concerning
bids for a major gas pipeline, according to an Oct. 7 AP report. However, recent
reports about Gov. Palin’s administration in Alaska have said that she has
worked to control and limit access to public records and officials in the
E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times include discussion by
Palin staff members of whether using personal e-mail accounts for state business
is a way to avoid subpoenas for public records.
According to an Oct. 7 AP report, Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg
declared in August that personal communication via cell phones and BlackBerrys
that is reimbursed by the state is not subject to the Public Records Act.
However, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Craig Stowers ruled on Oct. 10 that state government-related e-mails sent by Palin from her private accounts must be preserved for public-records requests. The AP reported that Andree McLeod, an Anchorage resident, had filed a lawsuit against Palin after several of her requests for records were thwarted.
“We shouldn’t be in a position where public records have been lost because the governor didn’t do what every other state employee knows to do, which is to use an official, secure state e-mail account to conduct state business,” McLeod said in the Oct. 10 AP article.
In a Sept. 13 Minneapolis Star Tribune article, Rick Steiner, a
professor at the University of Alaska, told of his difficulties in obtaining
information from Palin’s administration about global warming and polar bears.
Steiner requested the e-mail messages of government scientists who studied the
effects of warming on polar bears, and said he was told that his request would
cost $468,784 to process. Palin, who had sued the federal government for placing
polar bears on the endangered species list, said the scientists had found no
negative effects. Steiner later obtained the e-mails with a federal records
request and learned that, on the contrary, the scientists had concluded that
global warming adversely affected polar bears.
“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Steiner said in the Star Tribune
The AP has also reported that it experienced difficulty in obtaining state
documents concerning nursing homes. According to an Oct. 7 article, Alaska
officials replied to a June AP request for the documents with a $5,000 fee
demand before waiving it when another AP story revealed that members of the
McCain campaign had no problems in obtaining similar documents.
Time reported on Sept. 2 about gag orders from Palin during her time
as mayor of Wasilla. Vicki Naegele, managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley
Frontiersman at the time, told the news magazine that city department heads
needed Palin’s permission to speak with reporters.
“She put a gag order on those people, something that you’d expect to find in
the big city, not here,” Naegele said in the report.
Reporters have complained of limited access to Palin since she accepted the
Republican nomination for vice president on Sept. 3. On Sept. 9, the Associated
Press reported that Palin had spoken sparingly with the news media since her
speech at the Republican National Convention, with a highlighted instance being
a short, off-the-record conversation with journalists aboard her plane. Palin
has since done interviews with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and
CBS News’ Couric.
Palin’s campaign also prohibited most reporters from covering her meeting
with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sept. 23. The Associated Press reported
that initially the campaign allowed only photographers and a TV crew to join
Palin’s meetings with foreign heads of state who were in New York for the United
Nations General Assembly.
The Sept. 23 AP article mentioned one television producer who was not allowed
to enter the meeting with Karzai. He was told, “No writers,” by a man who
presumably noticed his notepad. However, a campaign official granted him
The Associated Press and CNN, which provided the pool camera for the
meetings, protested the campaign’s bar on reporters. Campaign officials told the
journalists that the decision was final, but they also announced that reporters
could accompany photographers into Palin’s later meetings with Colombian
President Alvaro Uribe and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt told the Associated Press, “The decision was
made for this to be a photo spray with still cameras and video cameras only,”
when she was asked why the reporters were denied access.
Questions were raised in September concerning Palin’s apparent avoidance of press interviews. Since then she has given interviews to a wide range of news media.
According to an Oct. 31 report on ABCNews.com, Palin criticized reporters during a radio interview with Chris Plante of WMAL-AM, Baltimore, saying they threatened her First Amendment rights by categorizing her discussions of Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright as negative campaigning.
“If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations,” Palin told Plante, “then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.”
Palin has kept family and former coworkers from the press as well. The New
York Times reported on Sept. 14 that McCain campaign officials asked Faye
Palin, the governor’s mother-in-law, who has criticized Sarah Palin, not to talk
to reporters. Faye Palin told New York’s Daily News that she had not
decided which ticket she would vote for in the November election and that she
and her daughter-in-law had different views on issues such as abortion,
according to an Aug. 31 article.
“We don’t agree on everything. But I respect her passion,” Faye Palin said of
The campaign also has sent aides to sit in on news interviews with Palin’s
friends. Additionally, the McCain presidential campaign fields all Palin
inquiries from reporters outside of Alaska, the Associated Press reported on
Meg Stapleton, a McCain campaign staffer and former Palin spokeswoman, told
the AP, “In general the state is sending media inquiries this way because we’re
just inundated with hundreds and hundreds of phone calls. It provides the most
expeditious channel to get stuff out there.”
The Wasilla Chamber of Commerce also requested that its members direct calls
from journalists to the governor’s office, frustrating at least one
“I was thinking, I don’t remember giving up my First Amendment rights,” city
councilwoman Diane Woodruff said in the Times article. “Just because
you’re not going gaga over Sarah doesn’t mean you can’t speak your mind.”
The Associated Press reported on Sept. 25 that Palin had asked for and
received a four-day extension of the original Sept. 29 deadline for disclosing
her personal finances to the Federal Election Commission. Palin now has until
Oct. 3, the day after her vice presidential debate with Democratic Sen. Joe
Biden. Candidates for federal office are required by law to file ethics reports
outlining their financial assets and liabilities including sources of income,
real estate investments, stocks and debt.
Biden released 10 years’ worth of personal financial records on Sept. 12 and
an updated report on Sept. 25.
Trevor Potter, general counsel for the McCain-Palin campaign, told the FEC
that the campaign initially thought it had until Oct. 4 to file the report, but
then learned the FEC set an earlier due date.
In granting the extension, the FEC said that if Palin requested more time,
the last possible due date would be Oct. 6.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.