TCS Daily


Seattle, Post Intelligence

By Ryan H. Sager - July 19, 2005 12:00 AM

First, Washington state's speech police came for the talk-radio hosts, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said nothing. In fact, the Evergreen State's largest daily newspaper said worse than nothing; it actively cheered on the enemies of the First Amendment.

The situation is this:

In April, Washington's Legislature passed a 9.5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax hike -- which would give the state the nation's highest gasoline tax. Public outcry was followed by the formation of a grass-roots group, No New Gas Tax, intent on overturning the new levy via an initiative -- Initiative 912.

Two talk-radio hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson of Seattle's KVI-AM (a Fox News affiliate), embraced the signature-gathering drive to put I-912 on the ballot. And that's when the trouble started.

The radio hosts were a bit too effective at getting the word out about the anti-gas tax initiative, so a county prosecutor with ties to the initiative's opponents decided to try to shut them up by making clever use of the state's campaign-finance-regulation machinery. San Juan County Prosecutor Randall Gaylord sued No New Gas Tax, alleging that the group had failed to list KVI-AM's commentaries as contributions to its campaign.

Advocacy on Wilbur and Carlson's shows, Gaylord argued, was really just an "in kind" contribution -- no different than a check written to a political committee. And, amazingly enough, a judge agreed with him. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham argued in his opinion that he was merely requiring "disclosure" of the contribution. But when it comes to campaign-finance regulation, disclosure is virtually always a precursor to restrictions.

So, what might a principled newspaper do at this point, regardless of its stance on the gas tax? Well, of course, it would see the clear threat this judge's line of thinking poses to journalists everywhere. It would see that when we start to blur the line between campaign coverage and campaign contributions, we risk preventing the press from doing its job. And it would see that petty squabbles over state transportation spending are hardly something over which it's worth tossing one's First-Amendment-protected brethren to the wolves.

And, so, if that's what a principled newspaper might do, what would the Seattle P-I do? Well, of course, it would write a flippant editorial under the headline: "Jabber Over Journalism." And it would declare that while it's fine for "broadcast pundits, newspaper columnists and editorial pages" to "discuss issues and recommend action," the KVI hosts deserve to be harassed for "acting as political activists, not journalists."

Puzzled by the paper's stance, I phoned the P-I's editorial page editor, Mark Trahant, a few days after that editorial ran, to better understand the paper's thinking. Trahant graciously agreed to discuss the editorial with me, and so I asked him the question that was pressing on the minds of First Amendment partisans across the country.

If a couple of radio-talk-show hosts can be regulated under campaign-finance law -- their very spoken words considered contributions -- what exactly protects the P-I (or any other publication) from such regulation? After all, the P-I has editorialized regularly on the gas tax (in favor of the tax and against the initiative) for months.

"We're not participants," Trahant said. "We have no vested interest, other than as citizens." Trahant went on to note that one of the hosts, Carlson, had given money to the I-912 campaign. "They actually coordinated on air, telling people where to get petitions."

And if that doesn't get to the heart of the matter, I don't know what does.

The speech regulators, almost always on the political left, are happy to let you talk all day -- so long as what you say doesn't actually have any effect on anything. But if what you say starts driving fundraising or getting people out of their chairs and on the street collecting signatures, then you may well be an enemy of the state.

Trahant and other like him, however, need to realize that the First Amendment has no qualifiers. It doesn't say that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ... unless a citizen shall have a 'vested interest' in the topic."

It says, "shall make no law." Shall. Make. No. Friggin'. Law.

Not every paper in Washington missed the point. The Seattle Times -- not exactly a conservative paper -- slapped Judge Wickham. And a handful of smaller papers around the state did as well.

But Trahant said response from the P-I's readers had been overwhelmingly positive toward Wickham's ruling and the paper's editorial.

If that's accurate, the paper and its readers might consider just what they're so happy about. Is it that a (supposed) violation of the campaign-finance laws was caught? Or is it that two people they disagree with -- radio hosts affiliated with the hated Fox News, what's more -- got slapped around?

And who will be left to feel glee when the big hand of government inevitably falls on the P-I?

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at editor@rhsager.com.

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