Victory for Online Political Speech
Earlier this week, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled in support of freedom of speech for bloggers. The FEC dismissed complaints against the DailyKos and a blog site critical of former Representative Mary Bono.
The FEC refused to find that the DailyKos was a political committee subject to regulation under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). Under FECA, any committee, club, association, or other group of persons which receives contributions aggregating in excess of $1,000 or which makes expenditures aggregating in excess of $1,000 during a calendar year is a political committee.
The complaint contended that because DailyKos spent more than $1,000 on its servers and because it charges a fee for advertising placed on the site while providing free advertising and media services to certain candidates, it should be classified as a political committee. The FEC rejected this contention, determining that DailyKos's advertising and other services are not equivalent to contributions and do not trigger political committee status. The blog was entitled to a media exemption and was not subject to regulation under FECA.
The FEC's decision that DailyKos was entitled to the same protection as other media outlets is consistent with the recent California case, O'Grady v. Superior Court, Inc. In O'Grady, the California Court of Appeal held that bloggers have the same rights to protect the confidentiality of their sources as do offline reporters.
The FEC also dismissed a complaint against a blogsite critical of Representative Mary Bono, finding that the site was entitled to the volunteer exemption. Under the volunteer exemption, an individual is free from FEC regulation if they receive no compensation for creating and hosting a blog. The FEC flatly rejected the claim that the blog was supported by the campaign against Bono. Rather, it determined that the blogger was an individual and his blogging activity fell squarely within the exemption. The FEC further found that while this particular blog was hosted for free, even if there had been some costs associated with the blog, those costs would have still been exempt from federal campaign contribution regulations.
In addition to this week's rulings, 2006 FEC guidelines also state that unless a blog is owned and controlled by a political party, committee or candidate, the FEC cannot regulate it. Thus, the distinction between formal political committees and blogsites is an important one. Throughout the last two elections, blogs have played an increasingly important role in disseminating information about candidates and political issues. According to the Pew Democracy Forum, in the 2006 election, over 60 million people went online to discuss candidates and gain information on the election.
As always, the ACLU has been working to protect political speech, both offline and on the Internet. We were a strong opposition voice to legislation that would have labeled bloggers as lobbyists. The legislation was defeated last year.
The FEC's decision helps to safeguard political speech and promote a robust public discourse about important issues of the day.