Fla. Mayor Says Reporters, Columnists Are Lobbyists Under Ethics Code; I Say He’s Wrong

Jonathan Peters 

Finally, my parents can be proud of me. No longer do they have to tell their friends that I practice law or teach or write. They can say I’m a lobbyist, all because of Richard Kaplan, the mayor of Lauderhill, Fla.

Kaplan said last week that reporters and columnists are lobbyists. Specifically, he refused to speak with a reporter unless she filed for public inspection “whatever is required as a lobbyist.”

The purpose of the ethics code is to limit influence peddling. It restricts lobbying by elected officials and their family members, it bans gifts from lobbyists and expands disclosure requirements, and it creates a special office to investigate government wrongdoing.

To see if Kaplan’s right, let’s look at the code.

Here’s its definition of “lobbying” and “lobbying activities”:

[A] communication, by any means, from a lobbyist to a covered individual regarding any item that will foreseeably be decided by a final decision-making authority, which communication seeks to influence, convince, or persuade the covered individual to support or oppose the item.

And here’s its definition of “lobbyist”:

[A] person who is retained, with or without compensation, for the purpose of lobbying, or a person who is employed by another person or entity, on a full-time or part-time basis, principally to lobby on behalf of that other person or entity.

Mashing them together, then, a lobbyist is a “person who is retained … for the purpose of” communicating with public officials about public business, with the intent “to influence, convince, or persuade” the official to take a certain action.

First, columnists in the broadest sense often want “to influence, convince, or persuade” public officials to do things. Some are employed for that very reason—to poke the bear. But in general they’re not doing so by communicating with the public official. They’re doing so by communicating with the public at large. Any direct communication between the columnist and official is incidental.

Second, reporters worthy of the title don’t “seek to influence, convince, or persuade.” They try to uncover the best obtainable version of the truth, as Bob Woodward once said, and then report it accurately, fairly and without bias. That’s the most any reporter can do in a world without perfect information. Reporters are objective, not advocative.

Third, the idea that a reporter or columnist would have to file something to talk with a public official raises First Amendment questions. It conjures images of licensing, the Colonial-era scheme the government used to control access to printing presses. Which, in turn, controlled who could be reporters and columnists. David Bralow, assistant general counsel of the Tribune Company, which owns the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, made that point here.

It might not hurt for the county to revisit the code to clarify a few terms, but by my reading reporters and columnists don’t qualify as lobbyists. And even if they did, the First Amendment wouldn’t tolerate it.

My parents will be so disappointed.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he’s working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. He’s written on legal issues for a variety of news media, most recently Wired and PBS. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com 

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