Net offers loophole in reform law

Free speech: Advocacy groups whose TV and radio ad time was curbed by campaign-finance rules could find haven online ... for now.

December 25, 2003|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Despite the best efforts of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, the First Amendment survives - online.

Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, which deliberately trims citizens' First Amendment rights. Among other things, the law limits the ability of advocacy groups - such as the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union - to broadcast radio and TV ads in the run-up to a federal election.

The court said that such ads, paid for by big corporate contributions, could distort the political process.

"Whatever you think about the First Amendment, this is pure incumbent protection," argued Joel Gora, associate dean of the Brooklyn Law School, who represented the ACLU in its failed effort to have the law ruled unconstitutional.

But the reformers weren't paying attention to the Internet when they drafted their bill. There's nothing in McCain-Feingold about restricting the use of the Web, or e-mail, or streaming audio and video. That means we're about to enter the golden age of Internet politics, as millions that can no longer be spent on TV and radio ads will find their way online.

"This is bound to spur development of the Internet, not only as a fund-raising tool, but as a way of getting candidates' messages out," said John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank.

Already, political pundits and Internet mavens alike have hailed Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, whose grass-roots Net campaign has transformed him from an obscure New England governor to the party's candidate to beat for its nomination in 2004.

Now the groups being forced off the airwaves by McCain-Feingold are getting set to leverage the Net.

The NRA already runs a daily video broadcast on gun-control issues at The group's chief, Wayne LaPierre, said this is just the beginning.

"We're going to do full-scale news programming on the Internet," he said, as a counterweight to mainstream news broadcasts that LaPierre regards as "anti-gun."

While such a broadcast won't attract nearly the audience of a network news show, it could still draw plenty of eyes. According to the ratings company Arbitron Inc., 50 million of us viewed some kind of video on the Net in August.

The NRA isn't giving up on TV ads, though. The group plans ads that will get out its message and rouse opposition to McCain-Feingold at the same time. The TV spots will state that federal law prevents the NRA from saying certain things about certain candidates, and will urge viewers to visit the NRA Web site for details.

LaPierre says he hopes the ads will not only keep the NRA's issues before the public, but also spawn a backlash against McCain-Feingold among censorship-hating Americans.

And the NRA's guerrilla media tactics are just the beginning. Consider the potential of Internet radio; millions of Net users already tune in to audio services such as Live365. Political lobbying groups could take advantage by creating their own Internet radio stations.

They wouldn't run nonstop political ads. Instead, they'd run music, news or talk, interspersed with pitches for their cause. The NRA could chose to create a country and western channel, playing Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks tunes, mingled with scathing attacks on antigun candidates. The ACLU could mix alternative rock tunes with denunciations of anti-abortion candidates.

Some shrewd politician could set up five or six different channels, each offering programming aimed at a different pool of voters. And none of it would come within reach of McCain-Feingold.

Not yet, anyway.

Don Simon is general counsel for Common Cause, a political reform group that backs McCain-Feingold. Simon isn't sure whether the campaign finance reform law's advertising limits should apply to the Internet, but he says that he's open to the idea.

"Should the Internet become a loophole to undermine the federal laws meant to protect the integrity of the electoral process?" he mused.

Indeed, critics say there's nothing to stop the law's being applied to the Net.

"Maybe if Congress cited a couple of examples where people used the Internet to say people should write their congressmen, [the high court] might say, `Yeah, we've got to regulate that,'" said the ACLU's Gora.

Samples of the Cato Institute agrees the Net is the next target of the reformers.

"If it's used against incumbent members of Congress, and it's effective, they're not going to leave the Internet alone," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.