The Corner

Politics & Policy

NY Ethics Commission Aims to Clean Up Albany by Abolishing First Amendment

An astonishing assault on the First Amendment, courtesy of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics:

The board in charge of cleaning up Albany extended its claws into newsrooms Tuesday, requiring public-relations consultants to report as lobbyists if they try to influence editorial writers. [via Crain’s]

Here’s the rule, passed by the commissioners in a 10–3 vote:

A public relations consultant who contacts a media outlet in an attempt to get it to advance the client’s message in an editorial would also be delivering a message. 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.

Translation: If you are a PR firm working on behalf of a client, you now have to register as a lobbyist with the state government and report your activities, under this expansive reinterpretation of Legislative Law Article 1-A, the state’s “Lobbying Act.” The rule requires firms to file bimonthly reports detailing their interactions with the press.

But don’t worry! It’s not going to crimp anyone’s rights! Just consult this footnote appended to the rule above:

This 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. Rather, this is intended to generate transparency in the activities of paid media consultants who are hired to proactively advance their client’s interests through the media.

And just in case you were still worried, JCOPE chairman Daniel J. Horwitz added: “Nobody here is suggesting that a garden-variety telephone conversation between a reporter or editorial board and a consultant is necessarily considered to be lobbying.”

Oh, whew! It’s only the non-“garden-variety” calls that count! I mean, probably. Maybe a “garden-variety” counts once in a while — just not “necessarily.”

Glad that’s all cleared up!

And to think: It was almost worse. An earlier draft of the proposal covered any PR consultant “who contacts a reporter or editorial board.”

Unsurprisingly, the impetus for this regulation comes at the behest of a garden-variety Democrat, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who in this month’s State of the State address called for legislation that would codify a JCOPE-style rule.

And, like Democratic efforts to “reform” campaign-finance laws or to make tea-party nonprofits register as political organizations with the IRS, this has nothing to do with “transparency” and everything to do with giving government authority over private actors — and, by extension, the press. The notion that elected officials and bureaucrats would not exploit their power over PR firms to disrupt or to bully them, or use information to attempt to discredit newspapers’ editorial boards, is dangerously naïve. This is an obvious assault on the First Amendment rights of private organizations to conduct business and to engage with the press, and of the press to be able to do its work with a free hand.

The November Team, a New York-based communications firm, has said that it will not comply with the rule. Other firms should follow its lead.


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