AEJMC Urges State of New York to Reexamine Ethics Guidelines That Encroach on the First Amendment

CONTACT: Lori Bergen, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2015-16 President of AEJMC | April 19, 2016

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) applauds the declared intent of the State of New York to help ensure government integrity through transparency in lobbying activities; however, its recent initiative to do so is problematic.

AEJMC, whose mission includes protection of First Amendment rights to free speech and free press, urges the New York State government to re-examine the wisdom and likely consequences of the Jan. 26 advisory opinion of its Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). This ruling would broaden the legal definition of lobbying to include an expanded range of activities that AEJMC believes encroaches upon First Amendment rights, including dissemination of information to journalists and discussions with news people. Under this ruling, professional communicators who are paid more than $5,000 a year to engage in these activities would be considered lobbyists and would need to disclose information, such as their compensation and for or against which legislative bills they are advocating.

Journalists and news sources, including public relations practitioners and other professional communicators, have constitutionally protected free-speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The JCOPE ruling would expand the definition of lobbying to include any media interaction whose outcome could result in the introduction, passage or defeat of a legislative bill; which takes a clear position on a bill; or which attempts to influence a public official regarding a legislative bill. JCOPE’s stated intent is to help ensure transparency in the activities of paid media consultants who proactively advance their clients’ interests through the media. JCOPE claims this ruling is not intended to restrict a journalist’s ability to gather information or to seek comments from representatives of advocacy groups. Lobbying in this expanded definition would include communication that addresses specific pending legislation; that takes a position on a legislative issue; or that solicits citizens to contact a public official. Registration as a lobbyist would be required when a communicator is involved in both the content and delivery of a message that seeks to influence legislation, albeit excluding videographers and photographers, website managers, billboards and media outlets. Such professional communicators would be required to file lobbying reports, including the subjects of their efforts, legislative bills that they are trying to influence and these communicators’ pay, expenses and client information, although the reports would not require the names of writers or publications.

AEJMC shares the concerns of professional associations such as the Public Relations Society of America, the Arthur W. Page Society and the PR Council that this broadened definition of lobbying would encompass public relations practices protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, AEJMC believes such regulation would result in inappropriate and excessive government control that would create a chilling effect on free speech and citizens’ right to petition government officials.
AEJMC agrees with the arguments of public relations firms that have filed a lawsuit in federal court, supported by the New York Civil Liberties Union, to prevent this rule from being put into effect. Lobbying in this expanded definition could refer to attempts to place an editorial for a public relations practitioner’s client or to induce a third party, e.g., the public or the press, to deliver the client’s message to a public official. AEJMC concludes that such disclosure would limit free speech as well as the ability of journalists to engage with relevant sources about issues that are critical to an informed citizenry.

The fundamental concern for AEJMC regards the definition of public relations and of lobbying. AEJMC believes that public relations must be defined broadly, if at all, largely because public relations practitioners as paid professionals do no more than exercise the rights of all citizens under the First Amendment. Conversely, lobbying must be legally defined explicitly, exclusively, narrowly and conservatively -with the burden of a fully reasoned legal defense of what specific communication to government officials should be regulated. The legal definition of lobbying must be disassociated with public relations, and registration and regulation as a lobbyist should be restricted to “direct lobbying,” i.e., a call to action regarding a law or regulation by paid individuals who enter into direct, formal communication with key officials and legislators. What is sometimes called “indirect lobbying,” which includes “grassroots lobbying,” does not entail such a call to action directly aimed at key decision-makers to influence an elected official on a matter of public policy and must remain unregulated.

AEJMC is the largest “nonprofit, educational association of journalism and mass communication educators, students and media professionals” in the world. For more information regarding this AEJMC Presidential Statement, please contact Lori Bergen, 2016 President of AEJMC, University of Colorado at Boulder, at Lori.Bergen@colorado.edu.

For more information about AEJMC, please visit www.AEJMC.org, follow @AEJMC on Twitter or email to aejmcpr@aol.com.

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