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Casting a shadow on free speech 

We have an old adage here in Colorado: If you don't like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. In addition to boasting 300-plus days of sunshine every year, our great state also has a long-standing tradition of transparency in government. In keeping with this commitment, Republican Gov. Bill Owens has declared March 13-19 as Sunshine Week, to pay tribute to Colorado's laws that ensure the public's business is conducted in open.

So imagine our disappointment when newly elected El Paso County Commissioner Douglas Bruce prefaced this week of honoring honesty in government by revealing his conniving effort to ban all free newspapers, including the Independent, from county-owned buildings.

During a six-minute-long diatribe at the start of last Thursday's commissioners meeting, Bruce admitted to his secret scheme, noting that, "I was advised early on that the way to be effective is to work behind the scenes." However, since he had failed to convince a majority of his colleagues to go along with his plan, Bruce decided to bring it up for a public discussion.

"It's important that having tried to work the system behind closed doors, so to speak, that we all have an opportunity to express our opinions on this subject," he said.

Bruce's statement can be read in full online at

www.csindy.com by clicking on the Public Eye link. In a nutshell, he appeared particularly annoyed by the fact that free publications are displayed "right under our photos down in the lobby" of the county office building at 27 E. Vermijo in downtown Colorado Springs. The proximity of the newspapers might thus, Bruce claimed, be construed as an implied endorsement by the elected officials.

Bruce characterized one of the newspapers as "particularly obnoxious," and that "the contents of one of the publications are in particular so disgusting that we couldn't discuss them at a public meeting."

Currently, the Independent, the second-largest newspaper in the area, has held a distribution spot in the county building in downtown Colorado Springs for approximately a decade. A quick check this week of the other free publications revealed three others currently displayed on the counter under the commissioners' photographs. They included: an eight-page newspaper called the Business Informant; an official sample ballot for the upcoming April 5 Colorado Springs City Council election; and a brochure for FREX, the new Front Range Express bus commuter service.

Exactly what Bruce may find so offensive about the Business Informant, the sample ballot or a bus service brochure is a mystery. And he surely couldn't have been targeting the Independent -- after all, Bruce is a longtime financial backer of this newspaper, where he regularly advertises his rental properties in the classified section.

But whichever it is, Bruce sure had his hackles up last Thursday. In his attack, Bruce suggested that only those newspapers that government officials agree with should be allowed. "The publications down there do not unanimously promote [our] values."

And, he said, when he secretly talked to other elected officials to shore up support for banning free speech, they seemed to agree. "One colleague said that he wouldn't want to have this [unnamed] publication in his living room for his children to read, and I agree with that sentiment.

"Another colleague," Bruce continued, "expressed concern about First Amendment considerations and the potential chilling effect. I don't think there's any chilling effect because there's nothing in the First Amendment that says the government has to sponsor or promote or distribute items from a free press."

Ultimately, Bruce -- who is also currently pushing an effort to allow people to carry guns into county buildings -- tried to bully the other commissioners into moving forward with a ban on free publications.

"I would like to hear the comments of my colleagues and see whether or not there are three votes to actually stand up for those socially conservative family values we all campaigned for." The silence was palpable. It went on for what seemed like forever. And then? The other commissioners launched into their next order of business, which turned out to be a lighthearted discussion about their recent trips to Washington, D.C.

Those commissioners deserve our praise for ignoring Bruce's absurd posturing -- and his secret scheming when it comes to conducting the people's business.

-- degette@csindy.com

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