Editorials, Opinion

Bills could defy Constitution, flout gov’t transparency

A First Amendment violation waiting to happen

Among SB 262’s terms, the bill includes: “authorizing the Treasurer to exclude financial institutions on the list from the selection process for state banking contracts; authorizing the Treasurer to refuse to enter into a banking contract with a financial institution on the list; [and] authorizing the Treasurer to require, as a term of a banking contract, an agreement by the financial institution not to engage in a boycott of energy companies.”

This comes precariously close to violating the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and protest. The First Amendment prevents government from abridging a person’s freedom of expression or retaliating against them because of an expression. In multiple court cases — most recently in the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision — the Supreme Court has granted corporations “personhood” and therefore protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Citizens United ruling specifically reaffirmed a corporation’s right to spend unlimited money on political ads for/or against a candidate, protecting it as a form of political free speech.

If corporations have the legal right to spend as much money as they want to make a political statement, then they should also have right to withhold money. Choosing not to invest in or support fossil fuel industries — which in turn use some of that money to lobby politicians or create political advertising materials — is also a form of political speech, and therefore should be protected under the First Amendment.

What is the government trying to hide?

HB 4260 resurrects an effort to move all legal ads to a central website in lieu of posting said ads in local newspapers.

As a newspaper, we obviously take offense. But it’s not just about the potential for lost revenue — it is very much an issue of transparency.

By state code, legal advertisements must be posted in newspaper(s) in the area that will be affected by the content of that ad. For example, anytime a business applies for an environmental permit, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection must place an ad in a local paper advertising a public comment period. This is how the mysterious “science facility” that is supposedly coming to the Morgantown Industrial Park first came to public attention: A resident saw the ad for an air pollution permit in The Dominion Post classifieds.

In the modern world of having information at the tips of our fingers, the enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance — it’s inconvenience.

We absorb tons of information every day because it’s right there in front of us. If you receive any kind of daily newspaper or newsletter — or even social media — then information is curated and delivered directly to you.

By moving legal ads to a central website, the government removes its actions from the public eye. Instead of skimming the classifieds, you would need to intentionally search out and read the website every day. Who’s willing to do that? Almost no one. Which is exactly what the state is counting on.

When government tries to move its actions from public view, we must take note, because we probably won’t like what it’s trying to hide.