At what point and under what terms is a public official entitled to express an opinion about a political matter unrelated to his office? That's the issue in a minor dust-up between Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and former federal prosecutors Tom Heffelfinger and Doug Kelley.
Freeman remarked in a newspaper interview last Saturday that the controversy over Al Franken's failure to properly file tax returns in California was a distraction from the real issues in the campaign for Senate. (Freeman has said previously that he was supporting Franken since Mike Ciresi was out of the race.)
On Tuesday, Heffelfinger and Kelley chastised Freeman in a letter, saying that he shouldn't have commented on the Franken situation without all the facts. Freeman countered that their letter was nothing more than a subtle show of support for Franken opponent Norm Coleman.
Freeman never claimed that his comments reflected the view of the county or his office -- he was asked for his opinion and gave it. Heffelfinger and Kelley's beef is that he didn't go out of his way to make it crystal clear that he was offering a personal opinion.
It seems Freeman's primary sin was being the only source quoted in the Saturday article about Franken who wasn't a full-time political consultant or mouthpiece of some kind. In that sense, it wasn't it courageous, rather than irresponsible, for him to express an opinion on the matter?
Do we really want to muzzle the opinions of officials because their comments might imply that those opinions might be shared by the official's colleagues?