My kids often tease me about the time I pre-heated a toaster before putting some bread in to toast it. I deny it. I still maintain to this day that I DO know how to use a toaster, but I also admit to some not-so-brilliant moments with technology, if you can consider a toaster technology. But, today, even my kids would have to pause to give me a pat on the back for this first ever "Russ Feingold Blog Post."
I am enjoying reading many blogs, and am fascinated by their immediate reporting that is covering the important issues of the day. Many of the positive comments I have been lucky enough to read about my work relate to the fact that I was the only member of the U.S. Senate to oppose the USA PATRIOT Act. That experience taught me a lot, but one thing I learned for certain is that millions of ordinary citizens support efforts to make sure the government doesn't try to take more power than it needs. Resisting overreaching by the federal government is appropriate and, yes, even patriotic. I feel very strongly about this, and have made constitutional issues in general, and First Amendment issues in particular, one of the central focuses of my work in the U.S. Senate.
While the days of campus protests are not the same today as when I was in college, many people don't realize that campus protests are going on every day, all over the country, when thinking people, from all different states, generations, and ethnicities are drawn more and more to participate and exercise their First Amendment rights in an exciting venue: the Internet in general and blogs in particular.
As one of the main authors of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, also known as BCRA, it is particularly difficult to hear the mistaken belief that the law was somehow an attack on our cherished First Amendment rights. It is not. The law was found to be constitutional and it accomplished what we wanted it to do without infringing on First Amendment rights: stopping Members of Congress from soliciting enormous campaign contributions from monied interests; and reducing the corrupting influence of big money donations. Despite the naysayers, and despite shamefully poor and often deliberately harmful interpretations of this law by the agency charged with enforcing campaign finance law, the Federal Election Commission, McCain-Feingold worked in the 2004 election.
McCain-Feingold and the blogs both had a positive impact on the 2004 election and many people don't realize how similar their impact truly was. Both the blogs and BCRA empowered average citizens. By channeling the power of average citizens to speak out on the Internet, the blogs revitalized the political process last year. In the same way, the power of small contributions was greatly increased by BCRA, and someone who could only send $5 or $50 to a political party has become a sought-after donor. Many parts of BCRA were handled irresponsibly by the FEC, and bloggers are understandably concerned that some members of the FEC may again try to cause trouble by overreaching in the area of free speech on the Internet.
So while I generally agree with the recent decision from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly requiring the FEC to redo its rules relating to political communication on the Internet, I am also concerned that the FEC will again create unnecessary concern and confusion. Judge Kollar-Kotelly's decision was not a result of problems with BCRA. It was a result of poorly drafted FEC regulations that were challenged in court.
The FEC must tread carefully in the area of political communications on the Internet. Political news and commentary on the Internet are important, even vital, to our democracy, and becoming more so. For starters, the FEC should provide adequate protection for legitimate online journalists. Online journalists should be treated the same as other legitimate broadcast media, newspapers, etc. and, at this point, I don't see any reason why the FEC shouldn't include legitimate online journalists and bloggers in the "media exemption" rule.
The definitions and rules relating to "coordinated activity" should be clarified, so legitimate bloggers and journalists alike don't have to worry about vague rules for legitimate activity. Certainly linking to campaign websites, quoting from or republishing campaign materials and even providing a link for donations to a candidate, if done without compensation, should not cause a blogger to be deemed to have made a contribution to a campaign or trigger reporting requirements.
Also, the FEC should generally exempt independent, unpaid political activity by bloggers on the Internet. We must let this town square, which has added a significant dimension to our political process, continue to flourish. When the FEC issues a proposal on this issue later this month, rest assured that I will be reviewing it carefully and offering detailed comments.
At a time in the country when we need free and open discourse, when the Senate is rubber stamping a bankruptcy bill which hurts those who have no power, when the country is involved in a war with no timetable for an exit strategy, we must be able to speak our minds without fear of recrimination from the government.