March 11, 2005


A new group baptized the Online Coalition is organizing a fight against the proposed Federal Election Commission crackdown on the political liberties of bloggers under the McCain-Feingold Act--a censorious outrage which was the subject of an earlier DIRELAND cry of alarm. The envisioned crackdown would, as we wrote when the story broke, change politics as practiced on the 'net as we know it.

The first step of this fight-back is an open letter to the chairman of the FEC from bloggers -- if you have a blog or are a journalist, sign on by clicking here (where you can also see the roster of bloggers and scribes from all political points of view who've signed on already.) The letter to the FEC says in part:

"As bipartisan members of the online journalism, blogging, and advertising community, we ask that you grant blogs and online publications the same consideration and protection as broadcast media, newspapers, or periodicals by clearly including them under the Federal Election Commission’s 'media exemption' rule.

"In order to ensure that there are sufficient measures taken, we also request that the FEC promulgate a rule exempting unpaid political activity on the Internet from regulation, thereby guaranteeing every American’s right to speak freely and participate in our democratic process.

"Finally, we ask that you clarify the rules and definitions related to 'coordinated activity' to protect bloggers and journalists from running afoul of Commission rules regarding the republication of campaign materials...."

You can find a first-rate legal analysis of the proposed FEC crackdown on Personal Democracy Forum. It's by Loyala Law School Prof. Rick Hasen, proprietor of the excellent Election Law Blog, who, among other things, writes:

"Appropriate regulation should meet two fundamental criteria: (1) grassroots activities should be regulated little, if at all; and (2) large-scale campaign activity—like advertising—that already faces regulation when done outside of the Internet should be regulated equally when the activity takes place through the Internet. The most difficult questions, as we’ll see, concern the role of popular blogs and online magazines that report on—and express opinions about—candidates for federal office. They should get a special exemption from reporting and coordination requirements, but they should have to disclose on their sites payments from candidates or committees to take a particular position in a federal race....

"The FEC’s rulemaking should extend the media exemption to bona fide newscasts, articles, editorials, and commentaries appearing in online journals or political blogs. New rules should preclude a complaint that an online journal or blogger is making an in-kind contribution to a candidate by promoting (or attacking) a candidate for federal office through a blog posting, online journal article or commentary, or link, even if the journal or blogger has communicated with a candidate or committee. Thus, if Josh Marshall links to the Kerry for President site and generates 50,000 visitors to Kerry’s home-page and $1 million in new contributions, this should not be treated as an in-kind contribution, any more than if a David Brooks New York Times column inspired $1 million in contributions to the Bush campaign.

"The FEC could and should still mandate that candidates and committees disclose money spent on election-related advertising at these or any websites. So if Andrew Sullivan receives a few thousand dollars for an advertisement promoting a federal candidate for office, that fact should be reported, just as it has to be for advertisements appearing in the New York Times. The real danger is if bloggers get paid in indirect ways to express favorable opinions about political candidates, and if those payments end up not getting disclosed. As the Armstrong Williams scandal shows, this is a danger that extends beyond the Internet.

"For Armstrong Williams-like bloggers actually paid by campaigns or other political committees to promote or attack a candidate for federal office, prominent and on-the-spot disclosure should be mandated. Bloggers like the two South Dakota bloggers who were paid $35,000 to support the candidacy of John Thune should have to include on each blog page view a statement that the writing was paid for by the applicable candidate or committee...." Well said, Rick, say I.

Hasen, however, is a bit more optimistic than I am about the possibilities the FEC will actually move toward the crackdown we're all worried about. In any case, the time is now to mobilize in a pre-emptive strike to make sure that they don't. That's why the Online Coalition's open letter to the FEC is an essential initiative--so, let me re-emphasize, if you're a blogger or a journalist or in the ad business, you should add your name by signing on here.

Posted by Direland at 11:36 AM | Permalink


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