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

Good news for free speech?

I missed this yesterday, but Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Herald reports that an anti-free-speech regulation put forth by the State Ethics Commission — and given front-page play by the Boston Globe last month — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Atkins’ article begins:

The state Ethics Commission yesterday threw water on a front-page claim by the Boston Globe that the agency issued a sweeping policy change forbidding elected officials to talk politics in the State House.

In a column in the commission’s spring news bulletin, executive director Peter Sturges called the piece, which claimed the agency issued an advisory changing ethics rules in an attempt to curb campaign related chatter by Gov. Mitt Romney, Attorney General Tom Reilly and others on Beacon Hill, “inaccurate.”

“As a result of the Globe article, some columnists and others have suggested that the advisory prohibits a legislator from answering a reporter’s casual questions about his candidacy, a Democratic legislator from criticizing the Governor, or the Governor from criticizing a Democratic initiative if these actions occur in the State House,” wrote Sturges, who declined to comment further to the Herald.

Sturges said none of those activities would run afoul of state law, stressing that the advisory simply updated the language of regulations, to reflect new technologies including e-mail and the Internet.

The Globe’s Andrea Estes wrote on April 19 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.”

Atkins’ story is good news if Sturges is telling the truth, but the possibility that he’s engaging in some after-the-fact butt-covering can’t be ruled out. The commission’s ruling got a lot of attention at the time. How come the only clarification we’ve seen is in the form of a column in a little-read newsletter?

Here is the Ethics Commission’s revised conflict-of-interest policy. No, I haven’t read it, nor do I intend to, since I don’t know how it differs from the previous policy — the key issue in determining whether the Globe got it right or not.

You can read Sturges’ column for yourself by following this link (PDF). Sturges comes across as pretty persuasive, writing:

The Commission recognizes that politics and policy are often inseparable, particularly for elected officials, and that all public officials, elected and appointed, operate to a greater or lesser extent within a political framework. The Commission’s recent advisory continues to recognize that fact. Nothing in the advisory prohibits a legislator from answering questions from a reporter about an upcoming campaign fundraising event or a major policy issue. Indeed, elected officials are generally free to discuss any political topic.

Still, if the Globe story was much ado about nothing, why did Sturges refuse to talk with the Herald this week? Why has the commission been utterly silent since April 19. Don’t the commissioners and their staff work for the public?

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Shaughnessy bites hand


Peter Sturges, come on down!


  1. Todd Wallack

    Here’s my take: The new policy clearly warns elected officials not to answer too many campaign questions from reporters in government offices — something that wasn’t in the old policy — but a question or two seems to be OK. The key language is here: “In circumstances where the use of public resources becomes more than incidental, the matter should be referred to the campaign. For example, if a series of questions to or an interview of a public press officer by a member of the media becomes predominantly focused on a political campaign, the press officer should conclude the interview by referring the media representative to the campaign for further discussion.”The old policy is here:

  2. Don

    If this policy doesn’t shut Teddy Kennedy up, I’m not interested.

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