If you're one of the nation's 30 million-plus bloggers - or among
the 75,000 joining their ranks every day - keep an eye on Thursday's
House vote on the Online Freedom of Speech Act.
Unless the bill passes, you may need a lawyer, if you discuss
politics online. If it passes, you may still need a lawyer, if you
spend more than $250 a year on your blog.
If all that seems confusing, you're not alone. Both critics and
supporters of this bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of
Texas, claim to want to protect bloggers and "small speakers" from
onerous federal campaign regulation.
But the Hensarling bill could also open a huge loophole in a 2002
law limiting the influence of big money in politics by allowing
unlimited spending by corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals
for political ads on the Internet.
"The Hensarling bill is the first skirmish in what role the
Internet will have in campaigns and governing," says Nicco Mele,
webmaster to Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
The bill started as a simple fix. When the Federal Elections
Commission (FEC) wrote rules for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act
of 2002, it exempted communications made over the Internet. The FEC
said that was Congress's intent. The bill's lead sponsors, Reps.
Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Martin Meehan (D) of
Massachusetts disagreed. So did the US Court for the District of
Columbia, which ruled in 2004 that the FEC's rule excluding Internet
communications was at odds with the plain meaning of the statute.
Before the FEC sets new rules, in a vote expected Thursday,
lawmakers want to weigh in again on what, exactly, they did intend.
Hensarling's bill would exempt Internet communications from
regulation under federal campaign-finance laws. The second-term
lawmaker and rising GOP star calls the Internet "the new town
square." "No American should have to hire an attorney just to
express their views online," he says.
The bill first came up for a vote on Nov. 2, 2005, but fell 47
votes short of the two-thirds required to pass bills under
suspension of the rules, a legislative procedure reserved for bills
In fact, it was controversial. Thirty-eight Republicans and 143
Democrats voted against the bill, including campaign-finance reform
sponsors Representatives Shays and Meehan. Senate majority leader
Bill Frist has offered the same measure as an amendment to a lobby
reform bill now pending in the Senate. …