Silent Spring

January 10, 1991

On Jan. 1, Bill Blewett, an engineer with the federal government who lives in Bel Air, no longer could legally write for pay his free lance articles on high school sports for the weekly Aegis. He became, as he explained on the page opposite last Saturday, a victim of the latest ethics law.

When Congress voted last year to give House members a pay raise, it banned honorariums for speeches and articles for representatives and almost all civil servants. (Senators, who did not get the House raise, can continue to accept honorariums.) The law is being challenged as an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. It may be, but it's still in effect for now. On Monday the Supreme Court refused to block its enforcement.

The law in question is one of the most wrong-headed to come out of Congress in some time. It not only needlessly interferes with the recreational writing of the Bill Blewetts of the country. It also keeps ideas out of the intellectual marketplace of newspapers, magazines, lecture halls and so forth.

On the books and strictly enforced in the past, this law would have discouraged R. L. Carson of the U.S. Fisheries Service from writing numerous marvelous articles about the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean for The Sunday Sun. That writing not only educated and inspired our readers, it also honed the skills and expertise that soon thereafter produced "Under the Sea Wind," "The Sea Around Us" and "Silent Spring." R. L. Carson was Rachel Carson.

There are many gifted and dedicated federal civil servants who could and should contribute their skills and knowledge to the public through lecture and writing. Some have much to offer in their own fields. Others can contribute in fields which are not related to their jobs. Both groups should be allowed to do so.

For that matter, so should members of Congress. What's wrong with Rep. Helen Bentley, say, writing an article for us on the situation in the Persian Gulf or a reminiscence of her Nevada childhood? Or speaking about that to some group? Ethical purists say this could be a corrupt relationship. Sometimes yes, sometimes, no. We think if the arrangement is open, the public can tell the difference between a $5,000 fee from a special interest for a 10-minute "appearance" and a reasonable fee for a legitimate article or speech.

A democracy lives and dies by a robust exchange of information and thoughts. To silence some voices -- especially informed voices -- is wrong and harmful. There is no need to wait and see what the court says about this law. Constitutional or not, it is bad law. Congress should quickly repeal it.

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