It’s been done before. Some in the newspaper business tell me that it happens all of the time; an individual attempting to financially damage their publication by urging their advertisers not to advertise for printing an article about them that they don’t like.
To go a step further, product boycotts have even been orchestrated to dissuade advertisers. That is fair and public freedom of speech.
Certainly any business is free to ignore such coercion and they may lose a few sales. However, is it somehow different when the coercion comes from a legislator?
Recently, a state legislator wrote a letter to the advertisers of a commercial publication informing them that the publication had printed a defamatory article about him. In his letter he does more than ask advertisers to cooperate with his idea that they punish the journal by withholding advertising dollars he actually attempts to intimidate the businesses into not advertising by stating “myself and many others are going to be watching in the next several weeks to identify and remember those in this community that wish to subsidize the destructive nature of this type of publication in our community.”
Businesses advertise in publications because they want to generate sales. They have expenses to meet; inventory, rent, utilities, insurance and payroll. They tend to advertise in the publications that their customers read. I don’t think a business really cares if a newspaper publishes an article about some elected official’s embarrassing conduct. They just want to get people in the door and make sales. For an elected official to even ask a business to forgo advertising is a huge imposition for that business. It may mean the difference between a great sales week or not meeting the payroll.
Therefore, I do think it is a different matter when a legislator uses this kind of coercion. After all, just what is such a warning supposed to imply? Legislators vote on the state budget which affects government contracts and grants. They review government contracts held with vendors and can permit or deny the contract. Legislators carry influence with government contract and grant decision makers. They also draft legislation and influence the passage of legislation that affects every business and industry in our state. That is a lot of power; power that can seriously hurt or damage businesses, employees, and their families - even entire communities.
The Tennessee Constitution states “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
Any act by an elected official of the State of Tennessee to abridge the free exercise thereof by act or acts of intimidation, threat, or coercion is a violation of Constitutional liberties, restrictive of the right of business to conduct free commerce, and in violation basic ethical standards.
We in the General Assembly are focusing on ethics. Good ethics legislation should protect the citizens from any such coercion in the future.