By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The no-speech zone

Tom Finneran, where are you? The iron-fisted former Massachusetts House speaker would have known exactly what to do about the State Ethics Commission‘s ludicrous attempt to ban political statements on state-owned property. He would have abolished the commission. Now, some might say that would be extreme. But as Barry Goldwater once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Andrea Estes reported that the commission had “tightened its rules on political activity by public officials, barring them from writing stump speeches, answering campaign questions, or holding news conferences on political topics inside the State House or other state office buildings.”

The ruling follows a complaint filed by Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston and state Rep. Jim Marzilli, D-Arlington. Their beef: Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by several staff members, had appeared outside his State House office in July 2004 to verbally cuff Sen. John Kerry. Yet the Globe story also notes that several Democrats, including Attorney General Tom Reilly, have made purely political statements while inside state office buildings. Indeed, Republican consultant Rob Gray, quoted in Estes’ story, gets it exactly right:

“If the Ethics Commission intends to stop all political lines of questioning for elected officials inside the State House, that’s ridiculous and impractical,” said Rob Gray, a Republican consultant and press secretary to former governors William F. Weld and A. Paul Cellucci. “These are elected officials. That in and of itself means there is a crossover between policy and politics. Stifling reporters’ questions only lets elected officials off the hook. What’s an elected official going to say when a reporter asks a political question — ‘Hey everybody get your coats and meet me at the corner of Beacon and Park streets and I’ll answer the question.’ It’s silly.”

The trouble is, this isn’t just ridiculous and impractical, although it’s surely that. It’s also an attack on free speech — a logical extension of misguided attempts to limit and regulate speech through so-called campaign-finance reform. Romney, Reilly and every other elected official ought to be able to say exactly what they want, regardless of where they happen to be standing or sitting at the time.

Johnston himself may be having some misgivings. In Estes’ article yesterday, he’s quoted as saying, “I’m delighted. We feel completely vindicated.” Today, though, Johnston tells Globe columnist Adrian Walker, “I think it’s a bit extreme. We didn’t ask that [political questions] be prohibited. Obviously, it’s a bit absurd to say reporters can’t ask political questions at the State House.” Well, Phil, that’s the problem with asking the ethics police to crack down on free speech: They just might go even farther than you’d intended.

WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst Jon Keller wonders if the commissioners “ate a batch of mystery brownies without checking to see what the ingredients were.”

Veteran political columnist Alan Lupo, writing in today’s Boston Herald, waxes indignant at the whole notion that speech on Beacon Hill can be regulated. Lupo writes:

Would it be such a violation of our common sense if, in the middle of a gubernatorial press conference, a reporter might ask the chief executive’s opinion of a presidential candidacy, and the governor might actually respond?

Are we now to believe that politics stops at the door of government? This foolishness reminds me of those cloying candidates for office who insist, “I’m not a politician.” Well, what are you then if you are running for office and hope to serve? A tree surgeon? An alto sax player? A member of the Black Watch Regiment?

The Berkshire Eagle makes a similar point in an editorial published today:

Government is politics and politics is government, and it is impossible to determine how a distinction can be made when elected officials are queried during campaign season. It is easy to imagine politicians using the commission ruling to avoid answering tough questions from reporters on the grounds that the questions are political in nature. According to the commission’s ruling, press conferences should be stopped in their tracks by a press officer if political questions begin to dominate. The distinction between a campaign question and a question related to official matters is a subjective one, as is the decision as to when one kind of question or the other dominates. This guideline is so vague as to be meaningless, and the prospect of a press conference at the State House being ended abruptly so it can be resumed at a campaign office is absurd.

Good for the Eagle. Neither the Globe nor the Herald has editorialized on this yet, and news of the ruling came too late for the Boston Phoenix’s deadline. I’m afraid that this is going to fall through the cracks unless there’s a concerted effort. Yes, this led the Globe yesterday, but stories have a way of fizzling out quickly unless there’s sustained follow-up.

This is scary. If nothing is done, I hope some brave politician will challenge the commission by speaking out as he or she pleases and then refusing to pay the fine that will inevitably result. It’s called civil disobedience, and the future of our political discourse depends on it.

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  1. Anonymous

    This is how the Dems in charge in the state keep stepping in it and handing over the keys to the Governors office every four years.Idiotic and childish whining….It would be nice to have ALL state and federal employees NOT raise or sollicit funds or handle any campaign work during their (well-paid with great benefits) jobs.But it isn’t easy to inforce and it ain’t hapenning anytime soon. SO, in the interest of fairplay, why try to restrict a few you disagree with when the problem is much wider.There should be no restricitons. Play by the rules as they are now and quit whining , you desperate Dems!N.

  2. Steve

    This is just silly. Johnston and Marzilli deserve ridicule for this, not vindication. And who the heck are the “State Ethics Commission” and what gives them the right to make laws? Especially about what goes on in the People’s house.Disgusting.

  3. Don

    “Government is politics and politics is government,” is the most depressing phrase I’ve seen today. I’ve been around since Hector had pups, and I have never seen such partisanism. People who can’t decide what they believe without consulting their party have lost my vote.

  4. Anonymous

    Choke on it, Phil J. How this bozo managed to become head of the state Dems is beyond me. Mean-spirited SOB. (“Landslide” loss in congressional race should have been a tipoff.) Unlike other Dems, Phil’s “Locust Valley lockjaw” makes EVERYTHING sound like whining.

  5. Neil

    Hey, what’s the beef, it’s right there in black and white. According to the State Ethics Commission’s website, it “enforces the Conflict of Interest Law and the Financial Disclosure Law”. The former online hereto. Get a large coffee then hie thyself to Section 268A:23, subparagraph 2…”…thereto and hereinafter, to wit, thou shalt not stand on the steps of aforementioned State House, nor sit therein, nor stand thereabout or in any other place of State business ipso facto, and cast aspersions and calumny upon thine opponent, in especial when said dickwad be a Democrat.”A commission on the prowl for conflict of interest is not a bad thing, per se. They just need to be whacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper in this case, for peeing outside their purview.

  6. tony schinella

    Phil Johnston didn’t lose the open election between him and Delahunt by a “landslide.” If anyone recalls, it was an extremely tight race and he won it – until there was a recount, punch-card rulings, and a court challenge … then, Delahunt won.

  7. Anonymous

    Tony,I believe the quotes indicated irony. Johnston has done for the Dems what The Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.

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