Crossposted on CalWatchDog
California’s chief political watchdog sent the blogosphere into a collective tizzy earlier this year. In April, Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, floated the idea that California become the first government body in the country to regulate political blogs and websites.
Bloggers all over the country reacted with outrage, leading Ravel to quickly revise the idea.
“As opposed to asking the bloggers to do it on their sites, which is the most effective option for the consumer, it may be more reasonable and less problematic to require that we get an isolated accounting from the committees,” said Ravel, who interrupted her South American vacation in April to speak with CalWatchDog.com about the regulations.
Five months later, the FPPC will hold a public hearing today to discuss the first draft regulations based on Ravel’s revised idea. To her credit, Ravel listened to bloggers’ concerns and has followed through on her promise to “get an isolated accounting from the committees.” The draft regulations would apply exclusively to campaign committees, which are already heavily regulated by the state. Bloggers would also be excluded from the reporting requirements.
“It was thanks to many of the bloggers who talked to me and emailed me to inform me of those concerns that I was able to fully understand the problems,” Ravel told CalWatchDog.com last week. “While I do not concur that it is unconstitutional to ask bloggers to identify who is paying them for political activity, I understand that to do so might have consequential problems that would be difficult to deal with in a reasonable way that balances free speech and the openness of the Internet with the need for disclosure.”
Ravel said that she continues to believe her initial idea would have withstood any constitutional challenges. Many free speech experts say such regulations of paid political bloggers would fall well within established First Amendment precedents.
“When a blogger is paid to write for a campaign, that’s basically a campaign buying a political advertisement,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who publishes the legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, explained earlier this year. “The Supreme Court has held (in McConnell and Citizens United) that the government may require political advertisers to identify the source of the advertisement. Requiring the blogger to identify his speech as an advertisement paid for by a campaign would be much the same as the identification requirements that had been upheld — it would inform the public about who is actually paying for the speech, and do so at the moment the speech is received.”
FPPC Draft Regulations Apply Exclusively to Committees
Political bloggers won’t have to test their luck in the courts, at least for now.
The blog regulations, as currently proposed by the commission, are strictly limited to campaign committees. “A committee, pursuant to Section 82013(a), must include amounts paid to any person who engages in activities such as the following, on the committee’s behalf,” the draft regulations state. That would put the onus for reporting political blogging entirely on the campaign committees that already file extensive campaign documents with the state commission.
Campaign committees that pay bloggers to provide content for a post, blog, video or social media mention would need to disclose “the amount of the payment, the payee, the name of the person providing services, and the name of the Internet publication, blog or website and the URL on which the communications are published.”
Mixed Reaction from Political Bloggers
Such regulations are likely to sit well with many political bloggers.
“If everyone plays by the same rules, and the FPPC can develop a site where disclosure is a few clicks and keystrokes, then I am fine with it,” Gregory Cole, who publishes at flapsblog.net, told CalWatchDog back in April when the blog regulations were first suggested.
The prolific blogging duo at CalBuzz.com shared a similar view, after reviewing the FPPC’s proposed regulations.
“California’s Fair Political Practices Commission is moving in the right direction in their new draft proposal governing expenditures for paid online communications,” wrote CalBuzz’s Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine. “We’re convinced Ravel and the FPPC are not out to squash free speech or prevent people working in campaigns from using Twitter and Facebook.”
However, CalBuzz would still like to see greater clarification of the types of activities that would trigger the disclosure requirement.
“The regulations should make clear that purchasing advertising from a web site at the standard market rate does not constitute employment of the personnel of that web site, whether the site is published by a stand-alone internet operation or is the online presence of a newspaper, magazine or radio or TV station,” they wrote.
Fleischman and Maviglio: FPPC Shouldn’t Become the Internet Police
But not all bloggers are happy with the draft regulations.
“The FPPC doesn’t have the resources — nor the need — to become the Internet police,” Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flash Report, and Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant and blogger, wrote in a joint Sacramento Bee opinion piece. “But now the FPPC wants to go where no other state has gone before: requiring anyone who receives payment from a campaign that is posting any content on the Internet to be reported — from a field worker who spends one day of a campaign knocking on doors and tweets about it from her iPhone, to the campaign manager who spreads the word on a blog, to a part-time student paid to coordinate campus volunteers and posts a humorous YouTube video about the ballot campaign he’s working on.”
“It should stick to its knitting and work on enforcing the voluminous campaign reporting rules already on the books, instead of attempting to slow the revolution of online communication that is revolutionizing American politics,” the political odd couple wrote.
When CalWatchDog.com spoke with Ravel last week, she confirmed that her top priority was achieving those objectives.
“I want to achieve the purposes of the Political Reform Act — to increase public trust in government with the purpose of engaging people in public life,” she said. “I think that the best way to ensure trust is open information, provided by the government, that is easily accessible.”
Looking past the blog regulations, Ravel also laid out an ambitious set of goals for improving the commission’s website and public disclosure tools.
“I am working very hard to get an online filing and access system, utilizing open source codes, so that everyone — bloggers, news reporters, and the public, can find information and make connections to help them make decisions about their elected officials,” she said.
Note: John Hrabe serves as a senior editor for the Flash Report, which is published by Jon Fleischman.