Daily Media Links 11/13: House Dems push FEC for tougher action on foreign election meddling, Congress’s end run around a pillar of online free speech, and more…

In the News

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Money in politics apparently isn’t so bad when Democrats win

By A. Barton Hinkle

When conservative or libertarian groups support a Republican candidate, it’s proof that the candidate is “in the pocket of” powerful and nefarious interests who have “bought and paid for” her support. When liberal or progressive groups contribute to a Democratic candidate, it’s proof that the candidate’s principled stand on important issues has earned the support of ordinary people who share his values…

For liberals and progressives, Northam did the right thing on Tuesday: He won. Which means all the money he spent, and all the money spent by others to elect him, is nothing to get upset about. As Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who now runs the Institute for Free Speech, wrote several years ago: “Nobody on the left really believes what they always say about campaign contributions and spending. … The ‘reformers’ do not believe money is corrupting. Rather, they believe that their political opponents are corrupt.”

And big money in politics poses no threat to democracy – so long as the right team wins.

New from the Institute for Free Speech

Comments to FEC on Potential Rulemaking on Internet Communications Disclaimers

By Zac Morgan and Allen Dickerson

At the Commission’s September 14, 2017 open meeting, at which the decision to reopen the comment period was made, Commissioner Weintraub referenced media revelations regarding the use of social media by the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. But while that is a crucial issue of national importance, and one that has received substantial attention from Congress and several federal agencies, the deterrence of foreign powers is not among the FEC’s core competencies.

Consequently, the Commission must approach any rulemaking concerning foreign on-line spending by first recognizing that it may be ill-equipped, as a matter of both statutory authority and agency competence, to address the problem; that the extent of the problem is largely unknown; and that Congress is considering legislation on the issue. As a result, any NPRM issued at this time should be intended to provide clarity and assistance to Americans.

In any event, the Notice makes no reference to political activity by foreign nationals or governments, and explicitly limits the scope of solicited comments. The Commission is considering “its regulations concerning disclaimers on certain internet communications,” and does not “propose changes to” any other portion of its Internet Communications rules. Accordingly, the Institute will limit its comments here to the application of the small item and impracticality exemptions in the context of online and mobile advertising by American citizens.


Internet Speech Regulation

New York Times: Fanning Division Through Social Media

By David M. Primo

To the Editor: 

Re “Internet Giants Pique Senators With Restraint” (front page, Nov. 1):

After raking tech executives over the coals over Russia’s use of social media to influence the presidential campaign, Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters, “What we need to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”

As a scholar who studies First Amendment issues and the ways in which campaign finance laws have been used to stifle speech under the pretext of safeguarding democracy, I get very nervous when politicians discuss the need for “controls” over the media to “protect” us. The American people should be nervous, too.

The Hill: House Dems push FEC for tougher action on foreign election meddling

By Ali Breland

House Democrats are pushing the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to take more aggressive action in curbing foreign influence in U.S. elections.

Eighteen members of Congress led by Democracy Reform Task Force Chair Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) urged the FEC in a letter on Thursday to treat political advertisements on social media platforms in the same way that it treats TV or radio ads…

“There is reason to believe that if we had a more effective disclaimer regime for political internet advertisements during the 2016 election cycle, a portion of the illicit foreign campaign spending might have been prevented,” the lawmakers wrote…

Lawmakers are also giving the issue legislative attention. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced the Honest Ads Act last month, which aims to hold digital platforms to the same political advertising standards as TV and radio stations.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said during the Senate Judiciary Hearing last week probing tech firms’ action against Russian manipulation of their platforms, that he was taking steps to introduce his own legislation on the matter that would go even further than the Honest Ads Act, but did not offer specifics.


Columbia Journalism Review: Congress’s end run around a pillar of online free speech

By Mathew Ingram

In the United States, one of the most critical planks supporting free expression online is a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, often referred to as the “safe harbor” clause. The EFF describes it as “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

Section 230 states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” …

The bill that the EFF and others are so concerned about is called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA, which would amend Section 230…

“An internet without Section 230 is one that diminishes the voice of the individual online, limits our access to information and diverse platforms for our speech, and pressures all intermediaries to act as gatekeepers and judge user content,” says Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

While it is celebrated by free-speech advocates, however, not everyone is a fan of Section 230. Some observers say there is a growing belief in Washington that the law gives Internet companies too much freedom, and that its protections should be loosened so the government can hold Facebook and Google accountable for things like fake news and hate speech.

Roll Call: House Panel Approves GOP Tax Measure

By Ryan McCrimmon

The substantive changes Thursday came in a so-called manager’s amendment from Chairman Kevin Brady…

The Brady amendment also sparked concerns about a further rollback of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits political activity by churches and charities.

Not only would the underlying bill’s changes to allow churches to endorse political candidates remain, but the latest Brady amendment would allow any 501(c)3 organization to do so without risk of losing tax-exempt status.

“The chairman’s amendment made a bad provision worse,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, a liberal organization. “It deepens a brand new secret money conduit and will lead to a flood of taxpayer subsidized secret political spending.”

NonProfit Times: Senate Tax Bill Keeps Johnson Amendment Intact

By Andy Segedin

Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not repeal the Johnson Amendment – which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in partisan politics. Independent Sector, in its statement, supported the change. Thompson said that the national council will continue to monitor future versions of the Senate bill as the House bill initially provided an exception to the Johnson Amendment only for houses of worship before expanding to al 501(c)(3) organizations at the last moment.

The Media

Chicago Tribune: Russia says it will retaliate after RT was ‘forced’ to register as a foreign agent

By David Filipov

Russia plans new measures to restrict U.S. media working here after a Russian English-language TV channel said it was pressured into registering as a foreign agent in the United States, a senior legislator said Friday.

State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said lawmakers will take up changes to the Russian law on foreign agents to extend it to the media. Until now, that law has been applied to just nongovernmental organizations that receive financing from abroad, and engage in what the government determines “political activity.” The law has been criticized as a way for the Russian government to marginalize civil society institutions.

U.S. intelligence agencies said in January that RT and the news agency Sputnik, along with a network of “quasi-government trolls,” interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of the Russian government by pushing anti-American propaganda, claims that RT denies.

Volodin’s address to the Duma signaled that the Russian government now plans to treat U.S. media in Russia as agents of the United States seeking to meddle in Russian affairs.

Free Speech

New York Magazine: There Have Been So Many Bad Lefty Free-Speech Takes Lately

By Jesse Singal

All of these bad takes arise from the same place: At root, people deeply want it to be the case that Richard Spencer doesn’t have a right to speak in public, let alone on public university campuses, so they contrive really silly reasons why, in their imaginary world, actually he can’t. Nor do some left-leaning pundits and academics want it to be the case that sometimes a protest put on by a sympathetic group like BLM really does violate someone else’s free-speech rights. So these pundits and academics just make something up about how “No, no, no, you see this isn’t really about free speech” – when it very clearly is!

It doesn’t help students to falsely tell them that Richard Spencer doesn’t have a right to free speech on public campuses – when the law says otherwise. And it doesn’t help society to spread further misinformation about the First Amendment – a widely misunderstood topic as it is. If you care about fighting hateful ideas, you should make arguments that are at least a little bit connected to reality.


Chicago Tribune: Shorter campaigns, less spending is the key to saving democracy

By David Orr

We must call for reasonable restrictions on campaign funding and duration here in the United States.

Take small-donor matching, for instance. It could level the playing field by amplifying the power of small donations, giving candidates the incentive to spend time listening to voters rather than courting big donors. Small-donor match is already in place in New York City, and Seattle has a “democracy voucher” program that directs public money to residents to use for small campaign contributions. This is how campaigns are supposed to work.

Let’s impose a “campaign calendar” on federal and statewide races – if we cannot stop the flow of money, at least we can limit voters’ exposure to the onslaught of ads.

The States

New York Post: Fix New York’s broken campaign finance rules

By Editorial Board

The Campaign Finance Board handed out at least $17.7 million in payments to 103 qualifying candidates – $9.5 million for City Council races alone.

Yet the cash pumped up the already huge advantages of multiple incumbents, including Mayor de Blasio and Public Advocate Tisch James.

De Blasio’s campaign got over $2.8 million in taxpayer money for a primary in which he faced zero real threats, then $614,000 more for a general-election contest that never became a race.

James grabbed $756,486 in public cash – despite outraising her GOP rival JC Polanco by 4,000 percent…

And for all the millions to City Council candidates, only a single incumbent may have lost. (They’re still counting in that ibe Queens race.)…

[T]axpayer money largely served as a giveaway to incumbent officials who had no need at all for the funds. How is this not “welfare for politicians”? …

This system doesn’t lift up the powerless; it rewards the powerful. It needs major reform – or total repeal.

Springfield News-Leader: Despite new law, PACS helped decide Missouri Senate race

By Associated Press

A new law that caps contributions to state political candidates likely will shift the power in Missouri politics to third parties and reduce information about where the donations come from, according to political consultants who point to a race for a state Senate decided last week as an example of the problem…

Last year, Missouri voters approved caps on donations to state political candidates but the state still allows unlimited corporate contributions to political action committees.

Consultants from both parties say the new law shifted money – and political influence – to outside groups.

“With the limitations on direct contributions, third parties will be a preferred way to advocate for candidates,” said Chuck Hatfield, a Democratic attorney with expertise in state election law.

John Hancock, a longtime Republican political consultant, agreed. He said voters thought they were limiting the influence of wealthy campaign donors but the unintended consequence will be shifting influence in Missouri politics from candidates to outside spending groups.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.