GUEST EDITORIAL: Julia Pirnack on the First Amendment

Under the guise of promoting “transparency” in campaigns, this summer the City passed legislation that I believe violates first amendment protections. I am one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the Longmont “Fair” Campaign Practices Act because it threatens freedom of speech and has direct negative impacts on our community’s ability to discuss policy issues and candidates. Freedom of speech means just that: freedom to discuss what you wish without undue regulation and oversight. While some exceptions have been allowed, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is clear: no law should be made infringing on free speech.

During my last months as Longmont’s mayor, a few people made it their business every week during council meetings and almost daily in the blogs, to launch personal attacks, lies and innuendo against me, other council members, businesses and others. At the time, many people asked me why I chose not to use my discretion as mayor to suppress attacks during meetings. My answer was always the same – people have the right to express what they wish, even though I may have thought their speech was politically motivated, downright deceptive or derogatory in the extreme.

If we set up laws, committees or regulators of “rightness,” we empower them to decide what we should hear based upon their own biases and motivations. We lose the battle to maintain our freedom to speak without threat of retribution or fines. Rather than government oversight, it is up to each listener to be their own regulator – for each individual to judge the value of the speech, its truth, and yes, the character of those speaking. 

Many years ago, a singular piece of federal legislation was proposed for adoption. This legislation was of such importance that one citizen decided extraordinary amounts of personal time and money must be dedicated to persuade the public on its merits. He decided to publish a series of papers promoting adoption of the legislation. For whatever reason, he wrote anonymously. He contracted with printers and enlisted a couple of personal and political friends to assist.

This series became the famous Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, supporting adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Papers were “The best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.” 84 papers were published under the pseudonym “Publius.”

Had Hamilton tried to publish the Federalist Papers in Longmont today, under the Longmont “Fair” Campaign Practices Act he would have been threatened and “… fined for [his] political views” (August 2009 City Line) to the tune of $200 per day, because he didn’t report to the City clerk first, note on each paper how much they cost (he didn’t know how many he would publish), and notify candidates and committees of his activities. As a people, we have forgotten that good arguments have the real power to persuade and that no amount of regulation, red tape and reporting will promote public understanding.

Instead of clarifying the City’s position on the lawsuit’s allegations, our City posts threats for non-compliance in newsletters and on TV, and our City attorney plays politics, shown clearly in the Times Call article of October 3rd. The article states City attorney Mei finds the timing of the lawsuit “curious” and wonders why plaintiffs wouldn’t just ask the clerk what they can or can’t do. “Instead, they chose to make this into a much bigger deal.” Sorry Mr. Mei, but I think first amendment violations by City government are a big deal.

Resolving the violations in the LFCPA would benefit everyone in Longmont, not just one faction or another – that is the whole point. Rather than follow their current lawsuit-happy path (note the City demanded that this local issue be removed to federal court), there is a simple, lower cost option for the Council to pursue. Acknowledge that there may be legitimate concerns, roll back the amendments to the LFCPA that violate first amendment rights and ask the election commission to craft a piece of legislation that passes constitutional muster. If the “curious” summer amendments to the LFCPA really weren’t politically motivated by some members of our current Council, they should not have any problem with taking another look at legitimate citizen concerns.

About Chris Rodriguez

Chris is the editor/publisher of LightningRod Blog - as well as founder/editor of Wrongmont, Longmont Advocate, Vote!Longmont, Longmont Politics, the LightningRod Radio Network, as well as being the original Longmont Examiner. Chris is a writer and talker - whether it be blogs, podcasts, music, or public speaking. When he's not heard on Air Traffic radio, he can be heard on his podcasts or seen in the local paper causing trouble.
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