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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2014 at 4:17 PM

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Editorial: Commercial photography rule makes the Forest Service look bad

A mundane federal proposal on wildlife photography has sparked a wildfire of concern about the Obama administration’s troubling record on transparency.

Seattle Times Editorial

Weigh in on Forest Service’s rule:

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The Obama administration’s U.S. Forest Service apparently is a bit of a diva when it comes to how it looks in a photograph.

The manager of 36 million acres of federal wilderness is finalizing rules about when and how commercial photographers can access its lands. The proposal was so badly written that media organizations saw it as an attempt by the Forest Service to play editor over their stories. For those scoring at home, that’s called “prior restraint” and it’s a no-no under any reading of the First Amendment.

After a series of news stories flared in the past week, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell tried to quell the storm, insisting journalists had misread the proposed rule. Note to government officials: When you have to issue a statement that your agency “remains committed to the First Amendment,” you’ve already lost the argument.

Tidwell’s real problem is that he forgot to tell his own rangers. The Seattle Times’ Craig Welch documented how Idaho Public Television — as far from a commercial photography outfit as you can get — had to scrape and beg Forest Service officials for permission to shoot footage for a package on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Eventually, a public-television editor felt he had to run the story by rangers to get a permit.

The news media’s concerns about the Forest Service proposed rule also fall within a larger frustration about the Obama administration. Obama pledged to be the most transparent president in history, but he has been among the least.

The administration pursued more criminal cases against whistle-blowers who leaked to journalists than all his predecessors combined. James Risen, the venerable national-security reporter threatened with jail by Obama’s Department of Justice, calls the administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

Outside the difficult media-adminstration tension over national security, Obama is still a crushing disappointment for First Amendment types. He has sat for more recent interviews with comedian Zach Galifianakis and ex-NBA star Charles Barkley than with The Washington Post.

The government watchdog group Cause of Action is suing a dozen federal agencies for allegedly allowing the White House to conduct politically tinged screenings of public-records requests. Just last week, it was revealed that the White House even seeks to censor the mundane daily “pool” reports, which are the equivalent of an Obama’s official Fitbit log of public activities.

No wonder an obscure proposed federal rule started a First Amendment wildfire, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the government plays a large role due to the amount of federal land here.

The Forest Service is still taking public comment on it. Let ’em have it. The Obama administration, rightly called the greatest threat to press freedom in a generation, deserves it.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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