Friday, March 11, 2005

Online Coalition for Free Speech

Captain Ed points to this open letter to the Federal Election Commission:

Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s decision in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Shays v. FEC, 337 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.D.C. 2004) and the FEC’s upcoming rulemaking process may have on political communication on the Internet.

One area of great concern is the potential regulation of bloggers and other online journalists who distribute political news and commentary exclusively over the web. While paid political advertising on the Internet should remain subject to FEC rules and regulations, curtailing blogs and other online publications will dampen the impact of new voices in the political process and will do a disservice to the millions of voters who rely on the web for original, insightful political commentary.

Under the current rules, “any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication,” is exempt from reporting and coordination requirements. It is not clear, however, that the FEC’s “media exemption” provides sufficient protection for those of us in the online journalism community.

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.

The Internet is a fundamental tool in the American political process. Just this week, we learned that 75 million Americans used the Internet to gather news, read commentary, discuss issues, register to vote, and generally join in the democratic process during the last election cycle. We believe the Internet is the primary driving force behind increased participation among traditionally under-represented groups of voters, and we applaud the Federal Election Committee for crafting rules that have allowed the Internet to flourish as a political communications medium.

Like the town hall meeting, online political activism is a vital part of American civic life. We encourage the FEC to provide bloggers, online journalists, and everyday cyber-citizens with the same freedoms that individuals and traditional journalists are free to exercise elsewhere. The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was intended to prevent unlimited soft money contributions and regulate electioneering advertising, not to stifle free speech or grassroots activities on the Internet that serve the common good.
I signed the letter (#676 in case you are wondering) because I think it is a step in the right direction, but I don't think it goes far enough. Exempting bloggers and other "online journalists" from regulation is all very well but I don't agree that "paid political advertising on the Internet should remain subject to FEC rules and regulations." I don't recognize the right of the government to regulate political speech of any sort. There is a part of me that thinks it might be good for this issue to go to court, since that might very well show the severity of the current attack on free speech that masquerades as "Campaign Finance Reform". But, of course, that would assume that the courts could recognize a violation of the first ammendment when they saw it.

In any event, by all means sign the letter, since a major popular response may well serve the same purpose without the risk. And it is always better to exercise that other 1st Ammendment right --petition for a redress of grievances -- before resorting to civil disobedience.

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