Ever since the blogosphere helped topple Dan Rather and effectively questioned some of John Kerry’s excellent Southeast Asian adventures, I’ve suspected that the government, in some fashion, would try to limit its collective ability to speak. When I raised this general prospect last fall with a panel consisting of Rocket Man, Wonkette, and Kos, the bipartisan response was “don’t worry.”
Now, however, there is clear cause for worry. Bradley Smith, one of the six commissioners at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), reports that his outfit is set to crack down on internet speech about political candidates and elections. It will do so by treating at least some of our political utterances as in-kind campaign contributions, especially when we back them up by linking to a candidate’s website. This move is the outgrowth of the restrictions that the McCain-Feingold places on political speech, and a decision by a district court judge in Washington D.C. (Clinton appointee Colleen Kollar-Kotelly) that the internet, unlike the MSM, is not exempt from these restrictions. Smith and the two other Republican commission members wanted to appeal the decision, but the three Democratic members demurred.
As George Will and others have noted, the limits on speech imposed in the name of campaign finance reform operate to enhance the MSM’s monopoly position when it comes to presenting information and opinion about politics. In the past, the threat to that monopoly position came from candidates, their well-to-do supporters, and other wealthy issue-oriented individuals. Now a new set of usurpers has emerged. They are called bloggers, but they are mostly just citizens with access to a computer who think they have something to say. Bloggers, for example, played a major role in the extraordinary defeat of Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle. Daschle had relied on the leading state newspaper not to report facts showing the extent to which he had become a liberal “creature” of Washington. But bloggers were able to present this information to voters to Daschle’s great detriment.
The political establishment and its speech police are not amused. They have not defeated “big money” only to have their designs ruined by a bunch of pajama-clad upstarts.
The blogosphere naturally is buzzing with good commentary about this issue. For example, veteran journalist Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation, has an excellent analysis. He notes that, with the Democrats on the FEC blocking appeal of Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling, the only remedy is congressional action. But, he warns,
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to pass a law saying it can’t exercise this new power it’s been awarded by the Supreme Court over political speech – i.e. over criticism of Members of Congress during the most important periods of election campaigns. A better name for McCain-Feingold would be “The Incumbent Protection Act.”
Meanwhile, Captain Ed has sent an open letter to the author of this mischief, Senators McCain and Feingold, whose lawsuit against the FEC led to the ruling that threatens to curtail political blogging.
UPDATE: I should add my sense that, while the government may make life quite dificult for bloggers for a time, its attempts at regulation ultimately will prove futile. And, to the extent that they continue to lead the charge, the Democrats will probably suffer. This is a party that has steadily moved to the losing side of the key issues of our time — from solid cold warriors to semi-pacifists; from upholders of equal opportunity to proponents of racial preferences; from upholders of free speech to proponents of speech codes; etc. Now, the Democrats seem intent on losing whatever edge they may have with young, sophisticated voters by moving to the losing side of the censorship debate and taking on the internet.
FURTHER UPDATE: The Campaign Legal Center, a pro-campaign finance reform advocacy group, denies that the McCain-Feingold law and related court and FEC activity constitute a threat to blog commentary. Democracy Project responds that the assurances are not very reassuring.
HINDROCKET adds: Maybe I’m missing something here–no, I’m sure I’m missing a lot, because I haven’t had time to read the commentary that others have written about the McCain/Feingold threat. I will say, though, that if anyone thinks that we bloggers can be prevented from saying what we think, that person is living in a different universe from mine. I’ve heard that the preferred method of “regulation” is to consider endorsements by bloggers (or mentions by bloggers?) as in-kind campaign contributions. This strikes me as ludicrous. First, how about newspaper mentions and endorsements? If the Democrats had to count all of the good press they get from the Washington Post on down as campaign contributions, the total value would dwarf all other contributions from any source. And how about talk radio? Every time a caller criticizes John Kerry, is that an in-kind contribution to President Bush? The mind boggles. And, in any event, so what? Federal campaign laws don’t place limits on how much a campaign can raise, only on how much individuals can contribute. So would the theory be that because Power Line has so many readers, if we criticize some Democratic Senator in 2006, we should go to jail because our criticism has a dollar value that exceeds the individual contribution limit? I can’t imagine anyone arguing that; if they do, we’ll make Peter Zenger look like a book burner.
This is on the list of things that just aren’t going to happen. Which is not to say that the present regime of campaign finance regulation (that is to say, “free speech regulation”) under McCain/Feingold isn’t an abomination and an affront to free speech. It is.