Thursday, January 24, 2019

OCPA column: The Speech Police

The speech police
by Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA)

Before Christmas, I cautioned Oklahomans about a proposed regulation by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission that would label almost anyone sharing an opinion about the Legislature as a lobbyist and subject them to state regulations.

On January 11, the commission released a new version of its so-called “indirect lobbying” regulation. The changes are mostly window dressing. It would still massively expand the state’s regulatory power, require warning labels on opinions, and make some people’s private information public.

After citizens and reporters packed the commission’s last meeting, they refused to vote on either version and instead called a special meeting for January 25. Possibly, a third version will be introduced in the meantime.

Whatever the commission finally votes on, the whole idea of regulating so-called “indirect lobbying” is silly and illegal.

Let’s be clear: So-called “indirect lobbying” is not lobbying. Instead, it is one private person talking to another private person, sharing an opinion about what is happening in the Legislature.

Why do we need warning labels on opinions? Why should a state agency waste resources regulating the speech of private people sharing their thoughts about public policy? The whole idea is frightening.

To avoid just this kind of mission creep, the Ethics Commission’s power is limited in the Oklahoma Constitution. Its job is to make and enforce rules related to the ethics of government officials and employees. This is why the commission makes rules about giving money to legislators’ campaigns and giving gifts to state employees.

But the Ethics Commission has no power to regulate private people who are voicing their opinions on the thousands of bills and rules considered by lawmakers and bureaucrats. This is not a complicated legal question. What the commission is trying to do is illegal not just because it violates the freedoms of speech and assembly, and our right to petition our government, but because it reaches far beyond the agency’s legitimate power.

Every year, some Oklahomans band together, often in small groups focused on single pieces of legislation, to make their voices heard. These are not professional lobbyists. Wrapping them in red tape will only serve to stifle them. But maybe that’s the idea?

Make no mistake: transparency is for government; privacy is for people. More than 3,700 citizens have signed a petition opposing this proposal. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission should refocus on its real mission: the ethics of those who work in government. And it should leave the rest of us alone.

Hopefully, the commission will vote this proposal down on January 25.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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