Ashley: Chilling effect on free expression worth worrying about

May. 18, 2013 @ 08:03 PM

What's going on here?

By coincidence or terrible karma, the unsettling developments on the free expression of ideas, open government and our ability to monitor that government are reason for concern and anger.

For weeks now, publishers, editors and the N.C. Press Association have been trying to forestall several initiatives in the General Assembly to loosen or eliminate requirements that local governments publish legal notices -- on new ordinances, public hearings, board and commission meetings and the like -- in general-circulation newers where people can see and are accustomed to seeing them. Lawmakers this session appear poised to reject those efforts but, the recent past suggests that those who want to make it more difficult for people to find these notices will keep trying.

But as troubling as that assault has been, the truly staggering news has come out of Washington.

And both are spawned by an administration many of whose policy initiatives I would like to see succeed. I'm angry that it is both undermining some important principles and increasing the odds important legislative efforts will be derailed.

One key principle is that we're entitled to express passionate and diverse views without government retribution. So it is inexcusable that the Internal Revenue Service by its own acknowledgement was targeting the tax exemptions of patriot and tea party groups. The regulations that govern tax exemption for groups whose efforts for social welfare work bleed into partisan political activity are confusing and inadequate. But that's true across the spectrum, is emblematic of our confused and conflicted election-financing laws and needs legislative resolution.

But the suggestion that the IRS singles put those with a particular ideological bent -- at odds with and often vehemently hostile toward the Obama administration -- is unacceptable. At mid-week, as I write this, Obama is trying forcefully to hold IRS leaders accountable -- and distance himself from the scandal.

Another move, even more dangerous in my view, is the work of top echelons in the Justice Department, even if Attorney General Eric Holder may have been uninvolved. Justice, investigating leaks to journalists -- which this administration has done with a fervor unseen in recent adminstrations of either party -- subpoenaed records of a months of phone calls to and from scores of Associated Press reporters and editors.

The scope swept up far more calls than might have been involved in the leak under investigation. 

The potential to chill important newsgathering is immense. For government officials to know who reporters are calling puts those called at risk of scrutiny over what they might have said. This and virtually every news organization regularly get calls from people who want  to alert us to government misdeeds. Many are personal peeves or misreadings. But some are invaluable openings to uncover misfeasance. Would they call if they knew the government could find their phone number in a news organization's phone records?

I know the "mainstream media" have our critics and those who would write off our relevance. But government 's chilling reporting will diminish the ability of advocacy writers and bloggers, too. I'd argue that eroding our ability to perform our historic function as government watchdog diminishes the public good.

As does IRS harassment of groups who are rhetorical and political thorns in the side of the party -- either party -- in power. As is decreasing the opaqueness of local government in a state already more opaque than many.

Government openness and accountability are too important not to fend off these moves that have diminished or could diminish them.


Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at