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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Registering Writers Curbs Free Speech

September 11, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

Freelance writers personify Los Angeles' against-all-odds dream of fame and riches--and its common reality of people just scraping by in gloomy anonymity.

Some make it big, but for most freelancing isn't writing, it's a daily torture, administered by editors, agents and other rude functionaries who communicate only through form letters of rejection. It's a life of grubbing, not too much different than that of the existence of the turn-of-the-century London writers chronicled by novelist George Gissing in his book "New Grub Street."

Yet, as was the case in London, such writers--and artists--define L.A. to the world, give the sprawling place a style, a face, a character. To whatever extent we have become an arts capital, it is largely because of the efforts of the inhabitants of our New Grub Street.

But now, to add to their troubles, these wretches are coming under the scrutiny of Los Angeles' regulators, about to enforce the city's well-meant new home occupation law, which legalizes small home businesses in residential areas.

Under the law, such entrepreneurs would have to register with the city clerk's office and pay a $25-a-year fee. The affected people would include CPAs with a few clients; artists; software experts and writers.

What's next? Will writers be required to pass tests to receive their permits?

Maybe that's not a bad idea in a town where every cabbie, waiter, doctor and reporter seems to be writing a screenplay. Really, though, the very thought of requiring writers and artists to be licensed by the city, to bring them under the thumb of government regulators, seems to violate the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

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Most of the publicity on this issue has gone to the screenwriters. The people I'm most worried about, however, are freelance muckraking journalists.

I called Joe Domanick, one of the most outspoken of the breed, and asked him what he thought.

Domanick wrote a strongly critical book about the Los Angeles Police Department, "To Protect and To Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams." Operating as a freelancer, he continues to pound away at police officials, Mayor Richard Riordan and other Civic Center hotshots. In pen and in person, he's got a tough and hungry manner that makes them uncomfortable.

"When I read about it, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I live in West Hollywood," Domanick said. That city has exempted writers and artists from its own business ordinance.

If he lived just across the border in L.A., he said, the law "'would put me in the position of going to the people who I have written critically about or who I may write critically about and ask them for permission to do my work.

"There is always the worry that somebody might put out the word, 'Hey, take care of this guy.' This is intimidating stuff, especially when you don't have the backing of a powerful organization like the L.A. Times."

The solo journalistic practitioner, working at home, has been an important force in uncovering governmental corruption, neglect and unethical conduct. The late Izzy Stone, a crusading radical reporter, did this with his I.F. Stone's Weekly. Blacklisted by establishment news sources--and the establishment press--Stone turned to official documents to back up his assaults on the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race.

The weekly was put out in Stone's Washington home. His wife, Esther, was business manager and secretary. And, as Stone's biographer Robert Cottrell described it, "Izzy took on the multiple jobs of publisher, editor, reporter, proofreader and layout man."

That would make him a perfect candidate for licensing in our town.

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Unfortunately, organized groups of writers have confused the issue.

At the same time they are seeking exemption from registration, the writers, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, are asking to be exempted from Los Angeles' business tax, which is levied on those whose businesses are in stores, offices or at home. The tax has been around for decades and undoubtedly the home occupation registration requirement will help the city in its stepped-up drive to collect more of the levy.

But tax collection is a separate issue. The writers and artists should pay the tax, and the city should figure out how to collect it from them without registration.

For registration, not taxes, is the danger.

Registration would provide a mechanism to unleash the power of the city against artists with a mean satirical touch and writers with a nose for municipal scandal.

The law gives zoning administrators the authority to "require the discontinuance of a home occupation if he/she finds that as operated or maintained there has been a violation of any of the conditions or standards set forth in this section." Building and safety inspectors would have the power to inspect the homes of writers and artists to investigate complaints that they are violating the home occupation law.

Proponents of the law say it would never be used for censorship. But I've seen the way mayors and council members can push around the powerful zoning bureaucrats who would administer the law.

Councilwoman Laura Chick has asked the city attorney to "clarify the confusion" over the law. That's not enough. The council and Mayor Riordan ought to exempt writers and artists from its reach.

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