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MAINE ETHICS COMMISSION

DANGEROUS DO-GOODERS SEEK TO TELL US WHAT JOURNALISM IS

Maine's Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is a menace. The commission won Muzzle Awards in 2007 and 2009 because of its zeal for regulating political speech, and its actions figured in a Muzzle presented in 2011 to a failed candidate for governor.

Now the ethics commission has won a third Muzzle, this time for announcing it will attempt to define what's a legitimate news organization and what isn't. The former would be able to cover the news as its editors and reporters see fit. The latter would be subject to the commission's ideas of what constitutes permissible speech on the part of political activists.

What prompted this latest outrage against the First Amendment was the sale of the Portland Press Herald and its associated MaineToday Media properties, which include the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel of Waterville. The new majority owner is Donald Sussman, a hedge-fund manager, political donor, and husband of US Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat.

Even though Pingree is a federal official and is thus not subject to the whims of the state ethics commission, the situation apparently got the commission's staff to thinking — and, as its past record shows, that's definitely not a good thing.

Also figuring into the commission's calculations is the Cutler Files, an anonymous Web site that attacked 2010 independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler — the winner of a 2011 Muzzle, awarded after he filed a complaint that the site wasn't a real news organization and was thus subject to disclosure laws. One of the site's founders, Dennis Bailey, outed himself, and is currently fighting in court to overturn a $200 fine the commission imposed on him for failing to disclose his ties to another candidate.

"While the voters may have legitimate concerns about political brochures masquerading as reporting, . . . those are issues that, until now, they've been able to settle at the ballot box, without any help from the government," wrote veteran Maine journalist (and Portland Phoenix columnist) Al Diamon in an online commentary for Down East.

The commission is supposed to make a decision at its July 25 meeting, according to the Bangor Daily News.

By winning a third Muzzle, the ethics commission enters our Hall of Shame — which, technically, means it is no longer eligible for further Muzzle consideration. Given its track record, though, that is one rule that seems almost certain to be broken.

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