April 18, 2000

Election Regulators Dismiss Complaint Against Bush Parody Site

By REBECCA FAIRLEY RANEY
ederal regulators have dismissed a complaint filed by the presidential campaign of Governor George W. Bush of Texas against an Internet critic whose site, gwbush.com, uses its potentially confusing Web address to serve up scathing parodies of Bush's official site.



Related Article
Bush Shows How Not to Handle the Internet, Experts Say
(June 8, 1999)

Bush Campaign Asks Government to Go After Critical Web Site
(May 21, 1999)


The Federal Election Commission said on Friday that it had dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it was too low a priority to warrant the use of the commission's resources.

By dismissing the case in this way, the agency failed to resolve an issue raised by the complaint and by the commission's previous opinions on Internet matters: whether the activities of individuals advocating the election or defeat of political candidates online are subject to government regulation, much like political action committees that spend millions of dollars on mailings and television advertising.

The creator of the site, Zack Exley, said he was pleased with the dismissal when he learned of it from a reporter Monday. But he said he was concerned that the FEC had not addressed the larger issue of political activity by individual voters on the Web.

"If that means that my case is closed, that's good for me," said Exley, who is a computer consultant in New York. "But the issue is still open, and that means that the FEC still has to do the right thing in the end."

In the complaint, which was filed nearly a year ago, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a lawyer for the Bush campaign, argued that Exley was campaigning and should comply with relevant election laws. The complaint said Exley should be required to post a disclaimer identifying the site's origin, to file with the FEC as a political action committee and to disclose the amount of money spent on the site.

When asked whether the Bush campaign planned any further action against the parody site, Scott McClellan, a campaign spokesman, said that the campaign had not done anything new to address the issue since last May.

"We just hope people will use good judgment and common sense," McClellan said. "If you look at all the Web sites, you'll see that free speech is alive and well in America, and Governor Bush has a very thick skin."

FEC officials did not comment, in keeping with a policy of not discussing compliance cases. In a summary of the case, an investigator for the commission wrote: "There is no evidence of serious intent to violate the FECA [Federal Election Campaign Act], and this matter is less significant relative to other matter pending before the Commission." The file was closed on Feb. 29, and the dismissal was made public late Friday.

At the time the complaint was filed, the Bush campaign was criticized for its handling of the matter. Campaign officials contended that they needed to do something about gwbush.com because the public was confusing it with the official site at georgewbush.com.

But the publicity surrounding the complaint drove thousands of curious visitors to the parody site. The site, in various incarnations, has featured cartoons of the governor with cocaine on his face and letters from Texas inmates convicted of drug-related crimes.

The site got more attention when the governor responded to a question about it by telling reporters, "There ought to be limits to freedom."

Internet political experts said that the campaign's approach to the matter showed that the governor's advisers, who were running a traditional television-oriented campaign, lacked sophistication in the handling of the Internet.

The Bush complaint also threw a spotlight on the FEC's handling of Internet issues. In the past, the FEC has ruled that people like Exley, if they spent enough money, could be required to register as political action committees. Such arguments have alarmed civil libertarians, who have warned that the approach could chill political speech on the Internet.

"Once again, the FEC has left the individual citizen, voter or unaffiliated activist in legal limbo," said James X. Dempsey, senior staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit group in Washington.

"It's very unlikely that the FEC is going to take legal action to impose fines or registration requirements on the individual Internet user who creates a Web page criticizing or praising a political candidate," he said. "But why didn't they just come out and say that?"

Dempsey said that he might interpret the action on the Bush complaint as a sign that regulators would be unwilling to use their resources to fine individuals who advocate the election or defeat of a candidate online.

Concerns about the commission's actions against people expressing political opinions online came to the fore last year. In a controversial opinion issued in 1998, the commission found that a Web site built by Leo Smith, a supporter of a Congressional candidate in Connecticut, should be treated as a campaign expenditure because it directed visitors to vote for a candidate.

Though the commission did not determine whether Smith's site cost enough to trigger reporting requirements, it specified that Web site costs include a portion of "the domain name registration fee, the amount invested in the hardware (computer and peripherals) that created the Web site and the utility costs associated with creating and maintaining the site."

Under this interpretation, if a Web publisher spent $250 on a site, he would be required to file a disclosure form with the FEC. If he spent more than $1,000, he would have to register as a political action committee.

The commission has addressed Internet campaigning in several opinions since then. Though the recent opinions have taken a more laissez-faire approach to the Internet, commissioners have never clarified the legal status of individuals like Smith who call for the election or defeat of candidates online.

Exley said that because the FEC did not decide on this issue, the onus is on the public to keep watch. "We have to keep our eye on things, and make sure they do the right thing in the end," he said.


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Rebecca Fairley Raney at rfr@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.




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