Attorney Richard Dietz writes an interesting piece about an exception in a Winston-Salem ordinance that should give us pause. 

The new ordinance, which took effect July 1, requires door-to-door salesmen in Winston-Salem to obtain a license and city-issued ID before making sales pitches to city residents. The law applies to all forms of commercial sales except one — it exempts newspaper salesmen.

There are, of course, obvious reasons why Winston-Salem’s print newspapers, struggling to maintain their subscriber base in the digital age, would want an exemption from this ordinance and the resulting registration fees. And there are obvious reasons why politicians in the city might want to give preferential treatment to the newspapers that report on them to the public.

But that is little comfort to other salesmen — of, say, encyclopedias, or cable TV, or anything else — who must comply with sales laws from which the newspapers are exempt.

In light of McCullen and other recent cases, this preferential treatment raises serious constitutional concerns. But whether it is constitutional or not, it is certainly bad policy. One of the greatest benefits of free speech is the competition that is created through the open exchange of information and beliefs. Scholars call this the “marketplace of ideas.”

It works like any other free market. Just as competition among businesses benefits consumers, competition among differing viewpoints benefits the public discourse — it helps society separate the strong ideas from the weak ones. And as in any other marketplace, we should be wary of government intervention in the marketplace of ideas.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens aptly summed up this concern in an opinion years ago: “The First Amendment directs us to be especially skeptical of regulations that seek to keep people in the dark for what the government perceives to be their own good.”