Get ready to debate federal regulation of political speech online… again

The left is nothing if not persistent.

Democrats have had a bear of a time getting their base voters energized to head to the polls to back Democratic candidates this November, and among the tactics federal Democrats have employed to enthuse their apathetic core supporters is the empty promise to regulate free speech.

With their decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon, the United States Supreme Court expanded protections on political speech in the last half-decade. With a vote this summer, Senate Democrats promised their constituents that they will attempt to rewrite the First Amendment to the Constitution to reverse those decisions. While most Americans would almost certainly be appalled by the notion that the Bill of Rights must be curtailed in order to appease progressives incensed by free and accessible dissent, congressional Democrats have had their eye on the short-term gains that proposed regulations on free speech might yield in November.

While it is true that the left is only engaging in perverse wishful thinking by backing a constitutional amendment rewriting the First, restricting political speech through the nation’s federal regulatory bodies is an avenue through which the liberal quest to quiet dissention may enjoy some successes. The outgoing Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission is fearful that recent moves by the appointed Democrats serving on that commission are prepared to impose some restrictions on political speech online.

The Court’s findings in McCutcheon, which ruled in the majority opinion restrictions on an individual’s ability to contribute to political candidates and causes violates the First Amendment, are apparently proving difficult for the FEC to interpret. There are some disturbing indications coming out of that commission that suggest the committee’s Democratic members are prepared to interpret that decision as a license to investigate (and effectively regulate) political speech in the form of YouTube videos.

“The top Democrat on the Federal Election Commission strongly suggested Friday that regulators look at extending their authority to election-themed Internet videos – an area that for years has been largely hands-off for the government,” Fox News reported on Friday.

At issue was a case considered by the FEC – the chief campaign-finance regulator – in September involving a group that ran pro-coal videos critical of Democrats in 2012. The group initially was accused of failing to report the cost of the videos and of failing to include the routine “disclaimers.”

But the group maintained that since they were only run on YouTube, they were exempt.

The case ended in a split, 3-3 decision at the FEC and was dismissed. But the vote itself aired a striking divide: despite a decision clearing the organization by the general counsel, Democrats voted to pursue an investigation anyway while Republicans voted to drop it.

“Since its inception, this effort to protect individual bloggers and online commentators has been stretched to cover slickly-produced ads aired solely on the Internet but paid for by the same organizations and the same large contributors as the actual ads aired on TV,” FEC Vice Chairman Ann Revel said in a statement.

In effect, she claimed, because YouTube videos posted for free on YouTube by individuals or 501(c) organizations could just as easily be produced and/or financially backed by political candidates or campaigns, they should be regulated in the same way as campaign spending and advertising.

Lest you believe that the vice chairman is merely engaged in a good faith declaration of her principles, it seems that Revel is not above taking her message to the voters in support of Democratic candidates.

“Earlier this month, Ravel launched a nationwide ‘listening tour’ entitled ‘The Future of Elections and Democracy,’” National Review’s Brendan Bordelon reported last week. “Billed as a chance for the public to ask questions and air their concerns about campaign finance to the FEC, the forum took Ravel to Denver on October 9 and to Chicago on October 14. She will travel to Atlanta on October 23.”

Outside observers believe that Ravel’s visits to battleground states mere weeks before the midterms are no fluke. Was the tour designed to affect Senate politics in particular states? “Of course,” says former Republican commissioner Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation. “How else do you explain the locations?”

“What she is doing is totally inappropriate,” von Spakovsky says, criticizing Ravel for pushing partisan political goals without other commissioners to provide balance. “I don’t think this is the way things should be done at the FEC, which can only operate when commissioners get together. . . . I don’t think money from the FEC budget should be spent allowing one commissioner to go around the country when other commissioners aren’t going with her.”

Revel’s attorney insisted that the FEC vice chair worked with her hosts to determine the best date to travel to these states which just happen to be hotly contested electoral battlegrounds, and that it was mere providence that the best timing for her visit coincided with peak campaign season.

Outgoing FEC Chairman Lee Goodman fears that the vice chairman, who is expected to ascend to the commission chairmanship next year, is “ringing a bell” to signal her support for more restrictions on political speech.

“My view is that the internet has over the last 20 years dramatically democratized publishing and political speech,” Goodman told HotAir. “Individual citizens publish their ideas on a level playing field with large well-funded publishers and media organizations. We need to encourage that kind of populist political engagement and speech, not being deterring it by regulating it, investigating it, and, in some cases, possibly even censoring it.”

Goodman fears that the imposition of regulations on YouTube videos would create a condition where FEC regulators pour over videos posted for free online and then force those who created those videos to account for their expenditures and production costs, effectively creating a disincentive to engage in that political speech in the first place. He added that this new form of regulation could easily extend to “podcasters, webcasters, and bloggers.”

“Over the last 20 years as political speech has thrived over the internet in a free market of ideas and debate, and there has never been any indication that online publications threaten to corrupt our politicians,” Goodman added. “To the contrary, populist voices have sprung up on the internet to counter large, well-funded voices. That’s reason enough to keep hands off the internet.”

Goodman warned that a “robust debate” on the future of political speech online was likely to take place in 2015, and that it was important to prepare for it today. He noted that the FEC is currently taking public comment on the implementation of new regulations on online political speech (the commenting period is open until January 12, 2015).

Regardless of whether the FEC moves forward with regulations on political speech online, it should be clear at this point that the left will never let that dream die. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the FEC’s Democratic members would like nothing more than to catch the politically active online right napping.