If you write a newspaper article in San Francisco that rankles a political leader, the government can step in and punish you.
That sounds like red meat for right-leaning forces on the Internet, setting off a firestorm of rants about the liberal idiocy of our fair city and how an earthquake burying us all or setting us adrift in the Pacific would be America's gain.
By all means, feel free to get that Internet firestorm started. We could use the Web traffic. But, in this case, the rankled political leader advocating the government actually step in to regulate newspaper content is the head of the city's Republican Party.
SF Weekly's brush with Big Brother started last month, when we published an online article titled "Republicans Love Mayor Ed Lee." Local GOP chair Harmeet Dhillon was quoted in the story stating that Lee "is the lesser of two evils. It's hard for the Republican Party to endorse a Democrat, but it's to give our members guidance, and there is a good chance Republican voters will seriously consider our choices."
That article's author, SF Weekly
online news editor Erin Sherbert, says Dhillon subsequently phoned her -- and was not pleased. Dhillon objected to the piece's headline, and a less than pleasant discourse ensued. The content of that conversation, however, is less important than its conclusion. Dhillon threatened to report Sherbert to the city's Ethics Commission
This is important for two reasons. One, it means the local head of a major political party doesn't know what the Ethics Commission does. Two, it means that the boss of a party best known for its veneration of small government feels that it's the government's business to crack down on journalists.
You could host a panel discussion of disgruntled city good-government activists
regarding the subject "What does the Ethics Commission do?
" But, for the purposes of simplification, we'll say that Ethics' major purpose is to keep track of and enforce campaign finance laws, filings, and registrations. But, here's the kicker -- Ethics oversees members of government, donors, contractors, and city candidates. Not newspapers. Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix was baffled at Dhillion's claims. Ethics' investigations are confidential, so he wouldn't reveal if she followed through. Dhillon, meanwhile, has not returned our calls.
Asked to come up with a situation in which he would have any business telling SF Weekly
what to do, St. Croix could only envision one far-fetched scenario. If this paper knowingly accepted an ad with a false endorsement -- a violation of Section 1.163.5 of the Campaign Finance Reform Act -- we could, potentially, be in some trouble. But, even then, the person paying for the ad is usually the one deemed in the wrong, not the organization running it. Regarding newspaper editorial content, St. Croix couldn't think of a situation that would be his business to meddle in. "I can't imagine where it would be possible," he says. "The Ethics Commission is not interested in limiting First Amendment rights."
Other people are, however. The notion of complaining to the government in hopes a reporter who pens a factually accurate article will be disciplined is a disturbing one.
We don't have government bureaus tasked with overseeing the press because -- how to put this most succinctly -- this is America. Follow us on Twitter at @SFWeekly and @TheSnitchSF