FEC Rules in Favor of Political Bloggers

Published November 1, 2008

Bloggers are breathing a collective sigh of relief after the Federal Election Commission upheld a 2006 decision to stay out of the way of electronic publications and blogs.

Two complaints had been made recently about popular political blogs, arguing they should be subject to campaign contribution restrictions because they were actually political committees for the candidates the bloggers supported.

FEC disagreed, ruling the blogs fell under the media exemption for campaign finance rules.

‘Good Job’

“The line has been drawn by the FEC, and an individual or a group of individuals acting in their own capacity can pretty much do whatever they want on the Web and not be subject to restrictions on the amount of money or reporting requirements that apply otherwise,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington DC-based organization dealing with campaign finance, elections, political communication, and government ethics.

“If corporate or political action committee money has been used for a blog, then campaign finance regulatory restrictions kick in,” McGehee said. “The FEC did a good job of upholding the spirit of the regulations and allowing people to express their views.”

Scarcity Not an Issue

Two years ago FEC decided blog postings did not count as a contribution to a political campaign unless the site was owned by a candidate, political party, or committee. FEC also decided online publications, like all other media, were exempt from campaign finance regulations. The August ruling confirms that decision.

Blogs were included under the umbrella of online publications. Experts say media-related campaign finance regulations are based on more traditional forms of media, which can create a problem for bloggers.

“A lot of these rules are based upon the assumption that the available space on which to air your advertisements is limited, like on broadcast televisions where there is a limited amount of ad time in the day and a limited number of stations that you can advertise on,” said Daniel Ballon, Ph.D., a policy fellow for technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

“Broadcast TV also costs a lot of money. That kind of scarcity doesn’t exist on the Internet,” Ballon said. “There you have an abundance of space at a very low price. The FEC could make it more abundantly clear that they don’t support regulating free speech on the Internet. It would also be good if other agencies followed the FEC’s example and also refrained from regulating free speech on the Internet.

“What makes the Internet thrive is the fact that anybody has an equal ability to contribute speech in a global community,” Ballon said.

Rules Seen As Working

Although the rules about blog exemptions have been on the books for a couple of years, campaign authorities say complaints will probably continue.

“At the moment, I think most folks are pretty comfortable with the regulations,” McGehee said. “There are some attempts by more conservative members of Congress to loosen the regulations even more, and I think their attempts are misguided. I believe people just need some experience in operating under these rules and they’ll pretty much figure it out.

“We’re going through the first big election where the Web and Internet is playing a large role in the process, with everything from bloggers to making money for campaigns,” McGehee said. “There’s a large learning curve, and obviously after this election everyone will take a look at how things went, but right now I don’t think anything calls for us to make changes.”

Fairness Is Main Concern

At the end of the day, McGehee says, the real issue is about keeping the election process as fair as possible.

“We want more speech, and we’re looking for more ways to do it,” McGehee said. “The problem is when special-interest money tries to get in the process. The problem is not with the speech, and we’re not saying that all money is bad, but it can have a very large impact in an election.

“We are trying to achieve the balance of promotion and encouraging as much discussion as possible without letting those who have the most financial resources distort the conversation,” McGehee said.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.