Politicians say stupid things.
That’s not exactly breaking news. Sometimes the stupid things they say rise to the level of being offensive.
What’s to be done about it? That’s a question Bismarck Tribune reporter Jack Dura asks with a recent article about some North Dakota politicians who write stupid things on social media. What’s interesting is that, in the article, Democratic House Minority Leader Josh Boschee (D-Fargo) suggests that the newly-formed ethics commission, created by voters on the 2018 ballot and appointed by a panel of state leaders earlier this year, could play a role in regulating the speech of elected officials (emphasis mine):
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he’d like to see more lawmakers use social media or communicate more in general. But he cautions that nothing on social media is private.
“I always use the mindset as I’m drafting information or putting things out there that, can I back up this statement I’m making or am I willing to be held accountable to what I’m putting out there?” he said.
The newly formed North Dakota Ethics Commission might play a role, he added.
“Who defines ‘offensive?'” Boschee said. “Are there accountabilities to saying something offensive, again, whether you’re saying something about an individual, a group of people? I don’t know, so I think that’s kind of the uncharted territories of the Ethics Commission, the questions that they’ll be asked at times.”
That’s chilling, though perhaps not surprising given the provenance of the ballot measure which created the ethics commission. For all the blather from supporters of the ballot measure about protecting against the influence of deep-pocketed political interests, the campaign was bankrolled by anti-free speech groups like End Citizens United and Represent.us.
These groups, operating under the guise of supporting transparency and accountability, are out to restrict political speech. The very name, End Citizens United, is a reference to that group’s desire to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which protected political speech from unconstitutionally zealous restrictions and regulations.
Now we have a state elected official suggesting that the “ethics” commission created through the funding of End Citizens United and others could well be used to regulate the speech of elected officials.
That’s beyond wrong, even if we set aside the obvious 1st amendment questions.
First, we want politicians to speak candidly. If Rep. Dwight Kiefert (R-Valley City) thinks homosexuals are mentally ill, don’t we all want him to say that so we can vote accordingly? If Rep. Mary Adams (D-Grand Forks) really thinks Republicans are a bunch of Nazis, aren’t we better off knowing?
“I cannot no longer say publicly what my feelings, my true feelings are about the government,” Rep. Adams told Dura. “I have to bite my tongue … and that’s the part that upsets me.”
It upsets me too, because I’d rather Adams wear her dumb sentiments on her sleeve where we can all see them.
What good is served by state-sanctioned speech police intimidating lawmakers into speaking less?
Second, the only accountability politicians need for the stupid things they say is the ballot box. If a given politician’s constituency wants to keep electing them despite some stupid, awful things they’ve said, so be it. That’s the will of the people.
There’s no indication, at this point, the ethics commission will start trying to regulate the speech – the newly appointed chairman of the commission said “it’s too soon to say” when asked about it – but that it’s even a possibility speaks to how deeply unwise it was to create it in the first place.
If this commission even starts down that road their mandate in state law ought to be ripped out and thrown in the dumpster.