The Next Free Speech Frontier: The Internet

April 20, 2012   •  By Sarah Lee
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An interesting piece from yesterday’s LA Times blog seems to coalesce all recent calls for disclosure of political funding for campaign ads onto the new frontier for all things media: the internet.

According to the Times blog piece, the California “State Ethics Czar” Ann Ravel is initially calling for voluntary disclosure of funding to bloggers and websites that attack candidates or causes in an effort to uncover “secret” money.

“I think we have to examine disclosure for bloggers and other Internet pundits who receive funding for their endorsements,” Ravel said during a conference on campaign funding co-sponsored by USC. “If we made a connection between a funder and somebody’s opinion so that opinion isn’t really that of the blogger, or the perception is that it might not be, people should be able to know about it.”

The only surprise here is that it’s taken this long for the speech police to begin looking at the internet as a major hub for free voices making comments and affecting the collective discourse of politics in this country. What better way to start controlling that narrative than to begin grumble about covert money in an attempt to make people think twice about supporting a new media outlet they think speaks for them. It will be interesting to see how far Ravel’s proposal gets. My guess is it’s an idea that will be — at least in today’s political climate — roundly rejected. Unless sites are actively running campaign or issue ads, they are simply today’s soapbox in the square. And, just short of them running afoul of hate crime laws,  and I’m not sure you can regulate that without completely destroying the First Amendment. One of our resident legal scholars has pointed me to the McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission decision, which ultimately states (according to the Chicago-Kent College of Law):

The freedom to publish anonymously is protected by the First Amendment and “extends beyond the literary realm to the advocacy of political causes.” When a law burdens such anonymous speech, the Court applies “exacting scrutiny,” upholding the restriction only if it is narrowly tailored to serve an overriding state interest.

I was also reminded that there’s a good argument to be made that in today’s landscape, blogs can easily be classified as press and are therefore Constitutionally protected agents of free speech. Despite these facts, don’t expect this issue to go away any time soon. Efforts to regulate internet activity under the rubric of managing political speech may become the move on the board.


Sarah Lee

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