Congress Shall Make No Law...
8:13 PM
A License to Speak

We’ve noted before that when government controls our economic affairs, it will inevitably control our speech as well. We’ve seen that tendency in calls to prohibit companies that receive TARP funds from lobbying and speaking out about elections and in the government’s threats against insurance companies that told policyholders they might lose their coverage if ObamaCare passed.


In Pajamas Media, Paul Hsieh highlights the latest example of this principle at work. Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, recently threatened to ban certain insurance companies from participating in the insurance exchanges that ObamaCare will create. Their crime? The companies told policyholders that recent rate hikes were due to increased costs associated with the new health care law.


Unfortunately, these are not just random examples of bad bureaucrats in action. Economic regulation—especially the extensive regulation we face today—must utlimately lead to restrictions on speech. The FEC and FCC obviously regulate speech, but so does the SEC, the CFTC, the FTC, and a host of other state and federal regulatory agencies. It’s inevitable, because in order to speak, we must act, we must enter into economic transactions, we must spend money, use computers, printing presses, broadcast stations and take innumerable other steps to make ourselves heard. If government regulates our economic affairs—as it does—it is only a matter of time before it will regulate our speech as well.


Indeed, just last week, IJ filed a case that illustrates the connection between economic regulation and speech regulation. Washington, D.C., as well as New York City, New Orleans, and a few other cities, requires a license to operate a tour guide company. Licensees must take a test to ensure that they are sufficiently knowledgeable to take people on tours and talk about their cities.


A license to speak? Isn’t that a prior restraint?


Well, yes. But it is also an occupational licensing law, and supporters of the law point out that we license plumbers, barbers, exterminators, cab drivers, funeral directors, and a host of other occupations, so why not tour guide companies. Of course, using the same logic, why not license reporters, authors, publishers, and bloggers as well? They’re all practicing a trade and are just as likely to speak out of ignorance, rather than erudition, as tour guide operators.


The answer is that the First Amendment still provides a ray of freedom in our otherwise regulated world—at least for those lucky enough to make their living speaking and writing. But that won’t last if we allow government to regulate everything else.


As my colleague Bob McNamara puts it in our video about this case, “The more occupational licensing restrictions grow, the more rights as basic as the right to talk about things will shrink.”