Next, Billboards on City Hall

Click on the official website for the City of Honolulu, go to the "Government" link, and find, among the official listings, an ad for a bank. Elsewhere on the site: a promo for an auto insurance company. The State of Maryland's website proudly lists corporate sponsors. These examples hint at a troubling trend.

Such ads may help pay for official online services, but state and local governments that sell them have an obligation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. What if, for instance, officials have ties to businesses that advertise on the site?

Official websites have greatly improved government services for citizens, but they need to be funded totally by tax revenues.

By putting ads on these sites, public institutions may appear to be endorsing certain activities or products. Or they may become beholden to the advertisers.

And on what grounds then would a government office reject an inappropriate or questionable ad for its site? Could such an action violate the First Amendment?

Certain areas of public life should be commercial-free zones, where the public trust is secure. It would be timely, in an ever-more electronic age, to designate official government websites as one of those zones.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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