The bill would protect the Internet from government restrictions offered under the guise of campaign finance regulation.

Internet Free Speech: Simplicity Itself

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives struck yet another blow against the First Amendment by refusing to pass a bill that would clearly protect free speech on the Internet.

The bill (HR 1606) is quite simple. One line, in fact. Here it is, in its entirety:

Paragraph (22) of section 301 of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431(22)) is amended by adding at the end the following new sentence: ‘Such term shall not include communications over the Internet.’.

Just as the text of this bill is short and simple, its effect is simple too. By adding this brief sentence to the legal definition of “Public Communication” that is already in the law, the bill would protect the Internet from government restrictions offered under the guise of campaign finance regulation.

Nevertheless, in a perfect demonstration that simplicity is the best weapon against the wrong, the anti-speech, campaign finance reform crowd reacted to HR 1606 with fear and loathing. Congressmen Shays and Meehan circulated an hysterical letter, declaring that the bill would “open up a major loophole for soft money to once again flow freely into our political system.”

Laying aside, for now, the question of whether this change would actually be bad, the reformers’ claim is just plain wrong. To be sure, the simple language of the bill protects Internet activity, but it doesn’t change the monstrously complex, layered set of legal provisions and regulations that now apply to political contributions, whether in cash or in kind. Indeed, with those existing provisions left unchanged, corporations, labor unions, individuals and others would still be prohibited from making large contributions to candidates or political parties ― just as they are today.

But the truth never got in the way of the “reformers” before. Why should it now?

Like the bill, the reality of the situation is also very simple. After the FEC tried to put regulations in place that left the Internet unregulated so that it could continue to be a “bastion of free speech,” Shays and Meehan sued the Commission in federal court, lest no area of political speech elude their regulatory grip. They prevailed, and the FEC was forced to begin crafting new Internet regulations.

The resulting draft of proposed rules prompted an outcry from bloggers and other Internet publishers, including CFIF, because it would have burdened the Internet, for the first time, with onerous government regulation. Among other things, the draft rules raised the specter of bloggers and others needing to consult with lawyers and file reams of disclosure reports if they dare to express an opinion about a federal election.

In response, some in Congress decided to make it clear that the FEC should leave the Internet alone. Which brings us back to Wednesday’s action in the House.

The final vote on the measure was 225 in favor with 182 opposed. But because the House considered the bill under a procedure that’s usually reserved for non-controversial measures (which this proposal certainly should have been), a two-thirds vote was required to pass it.

Given the simple and laudable nature of the bill, it’s difficult to understand how it could fail to secure the necessary two-thirds. Indeed, the fairly large number of votes against it reveals, yet again, the reformers’ true motives. They aren’t interested in protecting speech for all Americans. They are only interested in protecting it for themselves. Perhaps it’s time to stop calling their proposals “campaign finance reform” and start calling them “welfare for incumbent politicians.”

Yet, even though the House declined to approve the bill, there’s still a ray of hope. Because the bill was brought up for consideration in the unusual way that it was, the House can consider it again any time under the normal procedure and only a majority will be required. And because it already enjoys strong majority support, there’s no reason that House leaders shouldn’t bring it back to the floor as soon as possible and consider it again.

After all, what item on the Congressional agenda could be more important than protecting our fundamental right of free speech?

November 3, 2005
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