Sunday, September 05, 2010

Abridging Too Far



The Cost Of Speech: Philadelphia is charging bloggers $300 for a "privilege" license. In the city where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution signed, a right has become a privilege.

The scheme went virtually unreported until the Philadelphia City Paper ran a story last week noting that the city requires privilege licenses for any business engaged in what local tax attorney Michael Mandale terms "activity for profit." The tax is levied "whether or not they earned a profit during the preceding year," a policy likely to shut down many bloggers.

Bloggers write about an endless number of topics, from politics to sports to music to hobbies (and obsessions), both common and obscure. Few are in it for the money, which is probably for the best, since the blogosphere is not typically a place that yields fortunes.

For many, blogs are a simple way to communicate ideas and express opinions. Some are just personal journals posted in cyberspace rather than a notebook. Blogging is not a privilege to be trifled with by grasping city officials, but a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Speech is free — and not to be priced by government.

But greed knows no bounds, not even those laid down in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago. Governments at all levels are scouring the land in search of revenues from any source they can bleed. This impulse was never clearer than when states began their campaign to tax interstate Internet sales. They couldn't let the dollars fly by without trying to get their hands on some of them.

History is repeating itself in Philadelphia. This time it's not an effort to promote freedom, but to cover poor policies. The City of Brotherly Love is showing its affection by raising taxes to keep up with its spending.

We would concede that Philadelphia might have a case if it spent money in some way to protect or facilitate blogging and bloggers. But it does neither. Bloggers aren't driving on city streets. They don't need fire or police service. Nor do they require, as some say a for-profit business does, a bureaucracy of regulators, inspectors or paper pushers who need compensating. They don't even create trash that has to be collected. They can get by on their own.

Philly bloggers, as well as tax watchdogs and speech guardians outside the city, are understandably upset. If city hall can tax speech, it can tax anything. What — and who — is next? Should Philadelphia get away with this, other cities will surely follow. Constitutional rights are small hurdles for covetous lawmakers.

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