Ethics laws for public officials doesn't abridge their free-speech rights

Elected officials are representing their constituents, not themselves.


At a time when some elected public officials --particularly at the national level -- are too often behaving badly, it was concerning that ethics law were successfully callenged as a violation of the First Amendment's free speech protection.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled public officials' votes were a form of constitutionally protected self-expression.

That's an odd interpretation of the role of public officials. The Nevada court seems to believe legislators, council members or county commissioners are acting as individuals when they cast their votes.

No. Elected officials are representing their constituents and working for the people. They only have that vote because the people allow them to use it on their behalf.

And that is exactly why ethics rules have been in place since this nation was formed. Ethics laws are aimed at making sure elected officials do not cast votes that are conflict of interest -- approve projects, for example, that would ultimately line their pockets or the pockets of family or associates.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously -- and wisely -- overturned the Nevada court's decision.

Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking for the high court, said that when a public official votes, he is acting as not an individual but a "political representative engaged in the legislative process. ... Acting in that capacity, his vote is not his own speech but a mechanical function of government."

This ruling does not specify just how far ethics laws can go, it simply makes it clear that reasonable restrictions can be enacted. Ethics laws can still be challenged on other grounds, but free speech is not one of them.

For example, Scalia said, this high court ruling did not consider the burdens an ethics law the right of association between politicians and their supporters.

The specific challenge to the Nevada law came from a Sparks City Council member who was reprimanded by the State Ethics Commission for voting on a casino proposal for which his campaign manager was hired as a consultant. The law prohibits a public official from voting on an issue when a "reasonable person" would suspect a conflict because of financial ties or the interest of a spouse or family member. It also includes a catchall category for "any other commitment or relationship that is substantially similar" to those spelled out.

Nevada's law might well be overly broad and the Sparks City Council member was unfairly reprimanded. He should challenge the specifics of the law, not the principle that such laws are an abridgment of free speech.

If the Nevada high court ruling were allowed to stand it would have threatened ethics laws across the country that are a critical part of representative government.


Log in to comment