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ETHICS REFORM CONTAINED OVERKILL

Extremism in pursuit of honest government is no virtue, and a federal court was right to strike down a ridiculous excess of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. In the name of keeping public servants clean, it barred all executive branch employees from taking pay for speeches or articles, even those unrelated to the employees' work.

The real purpose of the statute was to rein in "honoraria" for members of Congress. These payments to lawmakers for public appearances before special-interest audiences never looked good. Sacrificing honoraria was a way for members to brush up their ethical image while simultaneously raising their own pay.At the last minute, with little forethought, the bill was extended to executive branch employees. Public servants were suddenly prevented from earning outside income from their avocations.

The federal workers who sought relief in court included a Nuclear Regulatory Commission lawyer who writes about Russian history, a microbiologist at the Food and Drug Administration who moonlights as a dance critic, and a civilian electronics technician for the Navy who's a freelance expert on early ironclad ships.

Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held the ban in violation of the First Amendment.

Any abridgment of free speech - such as a ban on payment - must be narrowly tailored to its public purpose, he ruled. It may not proscribe all speech-for-profit by public workers, but only that indicating an inappropriate "conflux of private money and governmental power."

The ban on congressional honoraria stands. And a bill now pending before the Senate appears to pass constitutional muster. It would target only senior federal workers and earnings from outside speeches or articles related to official duties.

That leaves the lowly tax examiner free, as he should be, to get rich lecturing on horticulture if he can.