Washington Tables Plan to Define Bloggers as Lobbyists

Published February 1, 2009

Bloggers in Washington state who have been worried about the government regulating what they write about can breathe a little easier—for now.

The state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) late last year tabled a proposal to adopt guidelines that would have treated blogging as “Internet lobbying.”

The five-person commission was split on the issue, with two commissioners supporting the idea and two others stating the matter required further investigation. The fifth member was not present at the December meeting, which caused the PDC to postpone making a decision.

Important Consequences

State regulators are deciding whether to consider bloggers lobbyists, which would make them subject to campaign finance rules. If the PDC decides they are, bloggers would be forced to disclose their finances to the government.

Experts say there is no way bloggers’ self-published journals should be grounds for naming the authors lobbyists.

“Classifying a blogger as a lobbyist is a clear violation of freedom of speech,” said Keely Drukala, a new media specialist at The Heartland Institute in Chicago. “A blogger is no more a lobbyist than your neighborhood bartender or your hairdresser who espouses political opinion. A blogger just has a larger audience.”

Speech Rights Debated

Much of the debate about subjecting bloggers to complicated lobbying rules hinges on the definition of constitutionally protected free speech. Opponents of the idea say if bloggers had to register as lobbyists, it would scare off many who feel they are merely exercising their right to comment on politics.

One expert says the issue goes even deeper, noting lobbying rules violate basic free speech rights.
“Lobbying is actually free speech, and that’s the problem,” said Bruce Abramson, an intellectual property expert and president of the San Francisco-based consultancy firm Informationism Inc. “As much as we say we have free speech and have very modest regulations on free speech, that’s actually not true.”

Campaign Finance Rules

“We have campaign finance rules that say some speech is acceptable and some is not, depending on the money you spend,” Abramson said. “Lobbyists lose their rights as citizens to petition the government. These laws are simply an affront to free speech and the freedom of the press. Why does one citizen speaking on behalf of another qualify as a lobbyist and somebody else doesn’t?

Blogs by traditional media outlets already have been deemed exempt from such rules in numerous cases across the nation. Traditionally, the media were distinguished by the way in which information was delivered, such as through television or newspapers. But with the explosion of Internet content, the line defining what is considered a product of the press is blurring.

Restrictive Definition of Press

“There’s always a question as to what is defined as press,” Abramson said. “We’ve set up very different rules for the press because of these different categories, and I personally believe that is a mistake. Because the question really is, what constitutes the press?

“If I write something in an email and send it off, will it mean something different than if I were to run off a thousand copies and pass it out in the streets? At what point do I become the press?” Abramson said.

“And that is the question with bloggers,” Abramson continued. “At what point do I go from being a guy who expressed his view and sent it to a friend to being something different when I express my view by posting it on a bulletin board?”

A spokesperson for the PDC says the commission will likely form discussion groups on the issue to facilitate more public comment before taking up the subject again.

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