ACLU Urges Government Not To Trample On Internet Political Speech
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON — Saying the government must not gag the new town criers, the American Civil Liberties Union joined forces today with the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Free Congress Foundation to urge federal regulators not to clamp down on political speech on the Internet during the upcoming election season.
“At a time when politicians and talking heads bemoan the political apathy that has spread across the country, the Internet holds great potential to reengage people in the political process,” said Barry Steinhardt, ACLU Associate Director. “There is absolutely no reason to clamp down on Internet political speech by individuals.”
The organizations sent their comments to the FEC in response to its request for ideas on how to apply federal election laws to Internet activity. Though the eighteen groups that signed onto the comments represent a wide range of viewpoints, they said they are “united in our belief that the Internet offers a unique opportunity to improve the quality of the electoral process by providing a platform from which individuals can engage in political speech outside the control of candidates, political parties, and the traditional media gatekeepers.”
The organizations urged the FEC to create a “safe harbor” for Internet political speech by individuals and to delay comprehensive rulemaking until after the 2000 election cycle to avoid new enforcement actions that could potentially chill new experiments in issue advocacy, direct advocacy and non-partisan activities on the Internet.
“The Internet allows anyone, as the Supreme Court said, to become a ‘town crier with a voice that resonates further than it could from any soapbox,'” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “The Federal Election Commission, which is charged with broadening the diversity of groups involved in the election process, must not gag the new town criers.”
During the congressional debate over revisions to campaign finance laws, the ACLU urged Congress to protect people using their own personal web sites to express their opinions about candidates from prosecution.
The FEC told at least one man, Leo Smith, that he was in violation of federal law because he had spent more than $250 in expressing his political views in 1996 without disclosing his identity and filing required reports.
Although Smith had already been operating a web site for his business and it cost him nothing but his time to add a section advocating his representative’s defeat, the FEC said it determined the value of web sites by counting, among other factors, the cost of the computer hardware and software used to create the site. If the computer cost more than $250, the FEC said, its owner would have to meet the filing and disclosure requirements of federal law. Using the FEC’s logic, if the computer cost more than $1,000, its owner would have to register as a political action committee.
The comments to the FEC can be found at:
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