Here's a message from us to JCOPE, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics:
It's none of the government's business who our editorial board meets with. It's none of the government's business what we talk about in those meetings. And it's none of the government's business what we write in response.
And why isn’t it any of the government's business? Because the Constitution says it isn't.
On Monday, five influential public relations firms filed a lawsuit in federal court objecting to a new edict handed down by JCOPE in January requiring public relations firms that meet with newspaper editorial boards to register with the government as lobbyists.
JCOPE's flimsy justification for the rule is a cavernous new expansion of the definition of lobbying to include "any attempt by a consultant to induce a third party — whether the public or press — to deliver the client’s lobbying message to a public official would constitute lobbying."
Under the rule, if a public relations firm comes to The Gazette's editorial board to try to get us to write an editorial favoring its position on a particular bill, then that organization would have to register with the state as a lobbyist.
We in this country have an amendment to the Constitution — the very first one — that allows for the free exercise of speech. If a private citizen, such as a public relations firm, wants to speak to another private citizen, such as a newspaper editorial board, it is free to do that.
No private citizen has to disclose the reason for the meeting or what was said at it, and neither do we.
Now, if the PR firm attempts to influence someone in government such as a state legislator, then government has a right and an obligation to disclose that relationship to the public. It's the attempt to directly influence an individual in government who, in turn, has the authority to influence legislation that creates the need for disclosure.
As a newspaper, we can advocate for a particular position or piece of legislation through our editorials. We can stir up the public into taking action. We can chide, cajole and castigate public officials into voting for a particular bill.
We can try to influence. But the bottom line is we have no direct control over that legislation. We're not the government. We can't pass laws.
So how can someone who meets with us and tries to influence us be considered a government lobbyist when we have no actual governmental authority to act?
The action by JCOPE places government at the apex of a slippery slope. If its goal is to regulate grassroots lobbying campaigns, why would it stop at paid public relations professionals?
How about citizens groups trying to convince a planning board not to approve zoning for a housing development or a Wal-Mart? If two people write letters to the editor urging the public and the paper to support tougher environmental regulations, would those individuals have to register as lobbyists? If the paper reaches out to someone seeking their expertise on a subject for inclusion in an editorial, is that person considered a lobbyist because he or she spoke to a member of the paper's editorial board?
Rather than allowing the PR firms' lawsuit to continue, JCOPE should save taxpayers a lot of money in legal fees, and save overwhelmed federal courts a lot of time and unnecessary expense, by dropping this nonsensical new rule.
If JCOPE really wants to stop undue influences on government, it should focus its efforts on regulating the government, and leave the public and the free press alone.
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