March 4, 2005 12:42 PM PST

Will campaign finance law stifle blogs?

As the Federal Election Commission gears up to review whether parts of the federal campaign finance law should apply to the Internet, some CNET News.com readers express concern that bloggers' free-speech rights could be at stake.

Bradley Smith, an FEC commissioner, said in a recent interview that bloggers may potentially find themselves fined if they improperly link to political campaign sites or forward a candidate's press release to a mailing list.

Smith is one of the six commissioners at the FEC, which is beginning the perilous process of extending a controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet, a move that raises troubling First Amendment questions, some News.com readers said.

"I fail to see the difference between a link on a Web site and a bumper sticker supporting a candidate on a car or placing a sign in my yard. These people are going way too far and moving towards impeding on freedom of expression," one News.com reader wrote in a posting.

Another reader said blogs should unquestionably fall under First Amendment protections.

"Blogs should be protected as Free Speech. Since they are BOTH broadcast and periodical, they should be protected by Freedom of the Press," the reader said.

"I have a right to support a candidate," the reader added. "I have a right to assemble with whomever I choose, including on a mailing list or a forum, and to exercise our right to protest, to advocate for a candidate or cause, to educate and to comment on any topic I choose. The only requirement should be to disclose money changing hands with Candidates. Otherwise, leave us alone."

In 2002, the FEC exempted the Internet from the law by a 4-2 vote, but U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly last fall overturned that decision. "The commission's exclusion of Internet communications from the coordinated communications regulation severely undermines" the campaign finance law's purposes, Kollar-Kotelly wrote.

Smith and the other two Republican commissioners wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But they couldn't get the three Democrats to go along with them.

Some readers have called for action to reverse the judge's decision. Another reader challenged others to speak up and fight "this type of censorship."

Meanwhile, other readers took issue with Smith's assessment that online political punditry is at stake.

"Just because bloggers may someday not be free to link to a candidate's Web site doesn't mean they will be censored," one reader said.

And yet another felt that some benefit may arise, should the commission link online political advertising with campaign contributions. His hope centered on reducing the volume of political e-mails.

"All those ridiculous political e-mails I received (over) the last few years...They're much worse than traditional spam," the reader said. "Those political e-mails had plenty of folks forwarding them around as if they were the gospel truth."

 

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