Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it best when he had to define hard-core pornography back in 1964. “I know it when I see it,” he wrote in a opinion about whether a certain film should be banned, “and this motion picture is not that.”

We feel the same way about the involvement of state agencies and their employees in political campaigns. Sometimes it doesn’t bother us; other times it does. When does it go too far? It’s hard to know exactly where to draw the line, but we know it when we see it.

And it seems like we “saw it” this fall in the referendum campaign to outlaw the bear hunting practices of baiting, hounding and recreational trapping. Throughout the campaign, we saw uniformed employees of the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife urging a “no” vote, not only in response to reporters’ questions or in televised debates, but also in the TV ads that ran in heavy rotation. This level of advocacy gave the strong impression that the state was opposing the referendum, not individuals employed by the department.

We think officials should give their expert opinion and individuals should exercise their free speech rights. But as Justice Stewart said, this was not that, or at least, it didn’t look like that.

It appeared to be the enormous power of state government applied against a group of citizens who were advocating for a change in the law. We have seen state officials involved in campaigns before, but we have never seen them go quite as far as the state biologists and game wardens went in this election.

But because what they did was so far from the norm, we think the Legislature should not go too far in its reaction. Just as we don’t want to see state employees getting too involved in political campaigns, we also don’t want them to be barred from participating. There is room for a happy medium, and the fact that this has not been a problem in the past should remind people that it might not need such a stringent solution.

When evaluating issues between two competing interests, we look for independent referees. And sometimes those impartial experts are employees of state government who have spent their careers engaging with the problem on a practical level.

Traffic engineers can have something important to say about highway projects. Police officers can be valuable advocates for public safety referendums. Teachers can have quality contributions to debates on school funding.

We wouldn’t gain from laws that silenced them from speaking in public (even if the U.S. Constitution would allow it), and since much of our political discourse takes place in 30-second television ads, banning them from appearing in advertising would be clamping down on public dialogue.

An approach favored by the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices strikes a reasonable middle ground. The panel is proposing a bill that would require campaigns to list the activities of state or municipal officials as donations and disclose them in their campaign finance reports. Keeping track of these activities and reporting them would go a long way toward preventing the kind of suspicion raised in the bear baiting referendum campaign.

Lawmakers should approach this situation with caution. We don’t need a permanent fix for a one-time problem.

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