(CN) – Pennsylvania can’t stop government watchdogs from disclosing ethics complaints against public officials, the 3rd Circuit ruled Thursday, upholding an order barring enforcement of the state’s “confidentiality provision.”
The federal appeals court in Philadelphia agreed with a lower court’s finding that the gag order on ethics complaints violates the First Amendment.
The provision had been challenged by Gene Stilp, a government watchdog who takes pride in “publicly protesting actions of public officials within Pennsylvania state government.”
In November 2007 he issued a press release stating that “the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission will be asked to investigate the use of taxpayer funds for political purposes. The contracts totaled $290,000 during 2007.”
His press released attracted media attention, but it also put him in the hot seat for violating the confidentiality provision. He admitted the violation and paid a $500 fine.
The commission declined to investigate and dismissed his complaint the day after it was filed.
Stilp then went to court over the provision, claiming it violated his constitutional right to free speech.
The state countered that, without confidentiality, anyone could publicize a bogus ethics complaint against before the public official has a chance to clear his or her name, causing voters to believe the frivolous claim and vote against the official.
But the federal judge took Stilp’s view and barred the state from enforcing the confidentiality provision, a decision the 3rd Circuit found sufficiently “narrow” to survive appeal.
“The harm caused by disclosing the fact that an Ethics Act complaint was filed, regardless of whether the complaint was frivolous or meritorious, is too negligible and remote to justify a blanket prohibition on such disclosure,” Judge Jane Roth wrote.