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Sunday, July 13, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  Overcast
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CITIZEN

Don't punish judges, reporters, or anyone else for signing Walker recall petitions

So the justification for wanting to keep people's views a secret is that it 'protects' us from bias?
So the justification for wanting to keep people's views a secret is that it 'protects' us from bias?
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Much has been made about certain people signing the recall petitions against Gov. Scott Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans. GOP leadership has expressed outrage over judges who have signed petitions, and the Wisconsin State Journal is apparently taking "internal disciplinary action" against employees who exercise their First Amendment rights.

The idea is that people who sign petitions somehow render themselves unfit for service as judges or even as employees of private business. This premise is simply not logical, and is not in keeping with our Constitution.

Let's remind ourselves of a basic fact: All of us have biases and beliefs. It's part of being human. Anyone engaged in civil discourse -- or anyone participating in the public sphere -- has opinions about issues, political philosophies or individual politicians.

It's nave to pretend that people can somehow achieve intellectual sterilization when they become public servants or join certain professions. Frankly, I don't think we want any public servants or newspaper reporters who lack an intimate grasp of the issues at hand. And having a grasp of the issues, by definition, means that these folks will be forming opinions.

The logical extension of the Wisconsin State Journal's reasoning should be to prohibit their employees even from voting -- because, by definition, voting means that these employees have an opinion or a bias, and are therefore unfit for careers as reporters. So the justification for wanting to keep people's views a secret is that it "protects" us from bias? Where, then, is the transparency we all say we want in government, or in reporting? I personally would rather know upfront what a reporter or judge's biases might be.

Equally troubling is the notion that people who serve as public officials or as newspaper employees cannot speak out, display yard signs, sign recall petitions, or write letters to the editor expressing their views. These are all clearly acts of political speech, protected by the First Amendment. And when people become judges or local elected officials, they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. They are not required to give up their individual rights protected by that same Constitution. Public servants cannot engage in personal political activity during government time (such as campaigning while on the job), but that is not the same as expressing one's views on one's own time.

As a purely practical matter, the idea that a newspaper reporter, a judge, or anybody else can't maintain personal opinions and still do their job fairly simply doesn't hold water. Our local newspaper in western Dane County, the News-Sickle-Arrow, provides an example of how an editor/reporter can openly express his or her opinion and still maintain professional integrity. Editor John Donaldson expresses his opinion all the time in his "John's Journal" column, and yet I don't think there is a single person in the community who would question his fairness or integrity with regard to his reporting on the other pages of the newspaper. There are reporters like John at Isthmus, at the Wisconsin State Journal, and other venues.

A bona fide financial or personal conflict of interest is a serious concern, of course. Judges should not be making rulings on cases in which they have a direct financial interest. But that is an entirely different animal, and not related to the idea of having opinions, of being fair, or engaging in political speech.

Democracy and free speech can be messy, which is a fact that many on both the left and the right sometimes forget. Political intimidation by employers, and suppression of the First Amendment rights of public officials or private citizens, are not the ways to instill confidence in our system of government. And they're not the ways to maintain the integrity of the watchdogs.


Kurt Karbusicky is an investigator for the Dane County Medical Examiner's Office and a former Village of Black Earth trustee. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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