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Ethics Board needs to recuse self from speech regulation

So since a Bogalusa city councilman requests that the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program take up an “advisory opinion concerning the regulation of web-blogs[sic] and blog sites and the placement of political campaign signs,” as a blogger who comments on Louisiana politics I guess I need to address this.

Democrat T.D. Kates is a busy man, finding time in the past couple of years to march against presumed racism. He also seems to enjoy making requests to the Ethics Board, such as giving campaign funds to pay for lighting public parks in his district (the Board says it’s permissible), as well as being involved in charges brought up against other entities, such as accepting free rides from air ambulance firms wishing to do business with the city (the company was found in violation and fined), as well as being subject to charges himself, such as failure to disclose relevant information (he was found liable and asked to provide it, although he wasn’t fined).

Maybe Kates’ interest comes from the fact he contributes to blogs, or perhaps because the question of who pays for dissemination of information about government officials is near and dear to his heart, having been told by the Attorney General’s office that a mailout to his constituents paid for by the city might violate the law.

One might wonder why he took the time to do this instead of making sure he didn’t file his ethics reports on time, but, here it is. That he filed such a request may not mean he wants there to be regulation of them, he may just want clarification on whether they can be in any way particularly if they appear to be connected to some kind of political campaign, even as it appears his hackles have been raised about a local web site.

However, as I observed earlier today in a previous post, nobody is forced to believe in anything on a blog, or even to read them. The same holds true with any “traditional” media source. So if the Ethics Board were to hold that there had to be some “truth-in-labeling” on blogs established by a campaign to masquerade as being unconnected to a campaign, this would create two highly undesirable conditions: (1) a level of intrusiveness into the process of campaign argumentation that should not exist (2) no reliable or clear understanding about the dividing line between what is true or untrue labeling.

Consider that (presently; who knows with a Supreme Court that upheld BRCA?) no law anywhere requires any truth in labeling in campaign ads (so long as they don’t surpass the judicial standards for libel or slander); wisely, the First Amendment has been considered to protect this latitude with the interpretation assuming that people are not so brain dead that they can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. Any moves to regulate would produce such a chilling effect on political speech as to seriously compromise democracy.

But perhaps even worse, who determines what is a “masquerading” entity and what is not, and how can they do it? For example, is a newspaper that has an online version which relentlessly prints positive stories about some candidates and negative ones about others any different from a blog run by a campaign? Or if that newspaper in its online version runs ads for just one candidate (recall that there is no “equal access” rule applying to the Internet; see here for this and related issues)? Again, what’s the difference between that and a “hidden” campaign blog?

This all may be a tempest in a teapot, as the Ethics Board surely will be sensible enough to rule it has no jurisdiction on this matter. That seems to be the the tack it will take, according to its staff. But the fact some might consider such regulation of political speech as appropriate in no way allows Louisiana to shed its reputation as a place whose politicians care so much about their power and privilege that they would contemplate this.

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