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Rob Port: N.D.’s media needs taste of its own medicine

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MINOT — I wonder if North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was expecting the uproar that his proposed “extraordinary places” regulations for oil-drilling permits issued by the state Industrial Commission have inspired?

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While the proposal has won praise from Democrats, left-leaning newspaper editorial boards and conservation activists, it’s not well liked among people who actually, you know, live in the Oil Patch amidst the development.

The proposal has sparked heated opposition from western lawmakers, western landowners, western citizens and, not surprisingly, the oil industry itself.

Stenehjem already has backed down on the issue once, deciding to make his proposal a mere policy change for the commission instead of a rule change. But a bone of contention remains.

Opponents of Stenehjem’s proposal don’t like the idea of drilling permits on private property being subjected to public comment.

The regulations being proposed require additional regulatory scrutiny for oil permitting around a list of specific “extraordinary places” as well as “any other areas or geographical formations the director deems appropriate,” as the draft proposal posted on the commission’s website reads.

If you own mineral rights near one of these places, the development of your property will have to go through public comment and other additional regulatory hurdles.

Some find that a not-at-all-unreasonable infringement upon private property rights (“Can’t fault proposal’s mild infringements,” editorial, Page F1, Feb. 16).

So, with that in mind, let’s propose a “mild infringement” upon another set of rights by way of illustrating how odious Stenehjem’s proposed infringement on property rights is. Namely, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Given that the act of journalism can have major impact on society, I propose that we develop a list of “extraordinary topics.” When any news outlet or even a private citizen writing on social media or a blog feels the need to write or say something about an extraordinary topic (or any other topic a government bureaucrat deems appropriate), the words first should be submitted to a group of state agencies and subjected to public comment.

Then we can all decide whether it’s appropriate for the would-be speaker to exercise his or her First Amendment rights in that fashion.

And if we can find the right sort of judges, maybe we can allow the public commenting periods to become weapons of delay, dragging out the publication of any controversial bit of journalism or comment through a heckler’s veto.

Because as others have so cavalierly concluded, property and other rights “are not absolute.”

Which is true, as far as it goes. The First Amendment does not protect libel, for instance. But that things such as speech rights and property rights are open to regulation does not make all regulation of them prudent.

Of course, proponents of Stenehjem proposal would scoff at my proposal. It is unconstitutional, they’d say, and an unfair burden on their ability to exercise the freedom of speech and the press.

And they’d be right, of course. Though why they can’t see the same as being true of this arbitrary regulation of private property development is beyond me.

But then, it’s easy to be cavalier about other people’s rights. After all, as Mark Twain wrote, “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

Port is editor of the Say Anything blog, www.sayanythingblog.com.

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