Friday, April 21, 2006

Ethics Commission Goes Too Far

Dan Kennedy has a good summary of the State Ethics Commission's recent ruling on political speech in state-owned buildings. Here's the short version of the ruling from the Globe, which Dan quotes on his blog.

[T]he 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 whole issue was touched off when state Democrats lodged a complaint that Gov. Mitt Romney called a press conference from the statehouse to denounce then candidate John Kerry for picking Senator John Edwards as his running mate. That seems to be a reasonable complaint, but the ethics commission has gone even further saying that if even if Romney had called a press conference for something else, and was asked about his thoughts on Kerry's pick, he would have to refrain from commenting. That's just silly.

I can understand the impulse to separate the official duties of an elected official from their campaigns. This is important to keep politicians from fundraising or doing other campaign related work on the public's dime. That said, this ruling by the ethics committee goes way beyond that, forbidding anyone from even answering questions about their campaign or holding conferences "on political topics" if they happen to be in their office. If this rule is enforced, it will have a chilling effect on speech in Massachusetts as public officials avoid even the most innocuous of questions because they're afraid someone on the other side of some issue or another will levy ethics charges against them. It's also not hard to imagine a situation where a politician uses this ruling as an excuse to duck questions being asked by a pesky reporter, claiming that they are forbidden from answering.

Unfortunately good-government types, not just here but elsewhere too, tend to err on the side of more regulation, more restrictions, when it comes to campaigns and political finance. In this case, I'm not sure that makes sense. Isn't it better for open government if politicians are able to answer any question posed to them, even if they're using state resources to do so?