Friday, June 17, 2005

Bloggers Lose a Friend at the FEC

The blogosphere will shortly lose their number one friend on the FEC, Commissioner Brad Smith will be returning to private life as his term on the FEC comes to an end. It was Brad Smith who sounded the warnings on the upcoming FEC judicially mandated reveiw and possible rules changes for the internet and blogs. Ryan Sager has some commentary.

"In his time at the FEC, Smith has served as the whipping boy of the campaign-finance-reform "movement" — the slew of "clean government" groups funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and seven other liberal foundations, plus Sen. John McCain and his merry band of speech police. But they've never been able to lay a finger on his understanding of the law and his fundamental critique of the very idea that the federal government should be in the business of regulating political speech.

Speaking from his home in Virginia, yesterday, Smith discussed with me how some of the predictions from his 2001 book, "Unfree Speech," have borne out and what the pitfalls for the FEC will be going forward.

One of the most important points in his 2001 book, which has been proved in spades by the failure of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reforms passed in 2002, is that no amount of regulation can truly control money in politics.

"There's not a stopping point here," Smith says. "As soon as you pass one reform, there's going to be another."

And, in fact, as soon as we had one election under McCain-Feingold's rules, the reformers were back calling for new regulations, such as a crackdown on so-called 527s, like the Swift Boar Veterans for Truth and the Voter Fund.

Even more worrisome, in Smith's mind, is that, while the reformers have always claimed their laws would pose no threat to freedom of the press, the blurring of lines between journalists and average citizens is putting McCain-Feingold's vaunted "press exemption" in peril.

"We've had complaints that raise some serious questions about CBS, Dan Rather, Michael Moore," Smith says, referring to questions raised during the 2004 campaign about whether these entities should be considered neutral news-gatherers or de facto spokesmen for one political party over another. Similar complaints were made against the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group.

And the line between citizen and journalist could get a lot fuzzier: Later this summer, the FEC plans to make rules for the Internet that could determine which bloggers and Web site will be eligible for the press exemption (and, the flip side of that, which could be accused of illegally donating time and/or money to a political campaign).

"This is going to erode the support for the entire idea of a free press," Smith says. People will ask, he says, "Why should some people who went to Ivy League schools and work at the Washington Post be protected and not me?""

The fight to preserve our First Amendment rights to express our political views goes on. We are going to lose one of the great champions of those rights. Mr. Smith will be sorely missed. - Sailor

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