by Lowman S. Henry | November 03, 2002

Finally, a Pennsylvania court has stood up and protected one of our most fundamental and precious constitutional rights: the freedom of speech.

In a recent ruling the Supreme Court of our commonwealth refused to rehear its earlier ruling upholding a lower court’s decision to strike down the state’s Orwellian Lobbyist Disclosure Law.

The Lobbyist Disclosure Law was passed in 1998 and quickly fit into the “road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions” category. It would be in the public interest to have some idea how much money and who is spending it to influence legislation in Harrisburg. Unfortunately, the 1978 law cast too broad of a net. Its undoing was casting that net over lawyers, who are obviously a group not shy about pressing their views in court. The law trampled on attorney/client privilege. That proved to be the law’s undoing as it was the narrow thread used by two lawyer/lobbyists to successfully challenge and ultimately nullify the Lobbyist Disclosure Law.

There was another unintended consequence, which hit closer to home. Educational institutions, like the Lincoln Institute, also got caught in the Lobbyist Disclosure Law’s wide net. As non-profit educational foundations, organizations like the Lincoln Institute cannot, under terms of our Internal Revenue Service tax status, engage in traditional lobbying activities.

In an interesting trip through bureaucrat land, when the Lobbyist disclosure Law went into effect I asked the state ethics commission whether or not the law applied to the Lincoln Institute and similar organizations. I got back a letter that rambled on for nine pages without giving me a clear answer. So I wrote back and asked if they could simply tell me “Yes” the law applied, or “no” it did not apply. I then got back a thirteen page letter saying they could give me a “Yes” or “No” answer.

Since I am not a lawyer, nor have I ever played one on TV, this left me wondering what I should do. I again asked for clarification, and was basically told if I or anyone else in my organization ever so much as offered an opinion on pending legislation, we were considered lobbyists. Thus, what I thought was one of my most basic of constitutional rights required me, and the many others in organization’s like the Lincoln Institute, to have to file paperwork with the state on a quarterly basis detailing our activities.

George Orwell, welcome to Pennsylvania.

As a somewhat outspoken critic of our judicial system, I feel it necessary to give a pat on the back when our courts do something right. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania was right to declare the Lobbyist Disclosure Act unconstitutional, and the state Supreme Court deserves accolades for upholding that decision – and they all should get a hero’s salute for protecting our freedom of speech, which is the bedrock of democracy.

At a time when supreme courts in Florida and New Jersey have disgraced themselves with their overtly political conduct in election disputes, it is important for the judicial branch that some court uphold the integrity of the judicial system. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court judges have done just that. And for today at least, we can say our American system of checks and balances has worked well.