Free speech now seen as lobbying by New York State regulators

A new set of regulations passed by the New York State Ethics Panel puts a muzzle on free speech and on a free press.  These regs stand in violation of prior Supreme Court rulings that defined the difference between paid lobbying and free speech and would infringe on the rights of public relations professionals, political consultants – even politically active bloggers.

The U.S. courts have defined lobbyists, according to the Wall Street Journal, as either “those who directly petition government officials as the paid employees or agents of others.”  Those are lobbyists, who can be required to register and to follow certain reporting guidelines.  However, that other category, “grassroots lobbyists,” are those – including anyone from a PR firm, every political consultant working in New York State, and even a politically active blogger – who are involved in directing “efforts to spur others to directly petition government officials.”

Not content with imposing the highest taxes in the nation or stripping millions of citizens of their Second Amendment rights, New York has now launched a campaign against free speech and free press.  The “obvious” target includes public relations professionals; less obviously so, the target also includes any blogger who advocates for a specific law, regulation, or other form of bureaucratic red tape.

The Wall Street Journal reported:

New York political consultants’ contact with the media will be treated as lobbying that requires registration and public disclosure under a controversial new rule approved by the state ethics commission.

A “public relations consultant who contacts a media outlet in an attempt to get it to advance the client’s message in an editorial” must register and report lobbying activity, states a regulatory opinion issued Tuesday by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

“Any attempt by a consultant to induce a third party –whether the public or the press – to deliver the client’s lobbying message to a public official would constitute lobbying under these rules,” it reads.

The ethics board, which is appointed by the governor and lawmakers, says the expanded lobbying law is “intended to generate transparency” and is “in no way intended to restrict a reporter’s ability to gather information or to seek comment from representatives of advocacy groups as part of reporting the news.”

Critics say the state is extending the reach of its lobbying enforcement far beyond what courts have permitted under the First Amendment.

It is easy to see how this restriction could also be made to apply to a passionate blogger advocating for or against some law or regulation.  The next logical step is to force every citizen with an opinion to register as a lobbyist and file monthly reports to the state.

Ironically, in an Orwellian twist, this regulation apparently also applies to PR professionals who work as employees for, or who consult with, the state government – including the governor and his cabinet officers, and even the legislature itself. 

Where is the harm?  Well, it certainly stifles free speech – and the free press.  For instance:

“It should be obvious that requiring someone to report every conversation with an editorial writer is intimidating to both journalists and advocates,” the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, told WSJ.

The governor, who appointed this commission but now claims that he hasn’t monitored their activities, is said to be “studying” this new regulation.  However, if the past is any indication, Governor Cuomo has never met a regulation – especially one giving more power to the state – that he didn’t love.

This is the kind of regulation against which our colonial ancestors rebelled.  While some justification might conceivably be made for regulating what paid advocates can do when dealing directly with legislators and their staffs, it is quite different when the state starts to regulate the contacts between citizens (regardless of where they work, or whom they work for) and members of the Fourth Estate.  The ACLU’s Donna Lieberman is right – this will intimidate those whose job it is to talk with the press.

If allowed to stand, this represents a major restriction in two cherished First Amendment freedoms.

Ned Barnett, CEO of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, has worked as both a journalist and a PR professional for both the government and the private sector.  He was, for several years, a registered lobbyist in South Carolina and later worked for a dozen years as a grass roots lobbyist – i.e., a PR professional dealing with public policy issues.

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