On March 29, 1960, the New York Times advertised an advocacy group’s call for political change in the segregated South. The ad was propaganda and clearly embellished facts for effect. Government functionaries implicated by the ad sued for libel. The resulting case, New York Times v. Sullivan, was a landmark victory for free speech. It reaffirmed America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open.”
For all that’s changed since the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, government threats to free speech are unfortunately not one of them.
The past half century has, however, produced an information revolution. National political discussions previously filtered by Manhattan news editors, and delivered unilaterally through print in the morning and television in the afternoon, now take place instantaneously with millions participating.
The internet has, in the words of FEC Commissioner Lee E. Goodman, “put a printing press in the hands of every citizen in America.” It has democratized the flow of information like no other invention in human history. Would-be citizen journalists and pundits with nothing more than a modem and a laptop place their wares in the in the same arena as traditional media companies, advocacy groups with seven-figure budgets, corporations, and governments.
The result has been remarkable. People with otherwise ordinary lives and commonplace jobs can exert enormous influence in the political marketplace. Online superstars gain hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. Political groups on shoestring budgets get millions of views with clever You Tube videos. The marketplace chooses winners and losers without regard to advertising budgets or institutional power. For the first time in modern history, people obtain information unfiltered by the lens of the state, the editorial judgments of news editors, or the biases of television producers.
But not everyone is happy. Last fall, disclosure doyenne and current FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel made overtures toward regulating online political speech, stating, “a reexamination of the Commission’s approach to the Internet is long overdue.” She further opined the current hands-off approach “as a matter of policy . . . does not make sense.”
Critics of Ravel’s approach disagree. In fact, internet regulation would chill the vibrant political debate continuously happening in cyberspace. For starters, the FEC would have to monitor online happenings, with subversive-speech sleuths probing You Tube for noncompliant “Obama Girl” videos. Unsuspecting bloggers could be investigated for actions like swapping links or tweeting. And while some undoubtedly have the means to hire lawyers to defend themselves against inevitable bureaucratic bungling and sham partisan complaints, most will likely not.
And that is precisely the point. The burden regulating internet speech would place on the Commission pales in comparison to the inevitable hardships it would cast on those providing the petrol that fuels our political conversations. Most internet speech costs little or nothing to produce but the speakers, now under the gaze of FEC enforcement, would be forced to file reports and attach disclaimers. The result would be classic Washington. Instead of providing the public more information, the insiders hire lawyers and the little guy ends up Googling “regulatory capture.” That is, of course, only after he Googles “MUR.”
The public seems to agree with this critique. Nearly 2,000 citizens have submitted comments asking the FEC to kindly step away from the internet.
Chairwoman Ravel, sensing the tide, is now backtracking faster than a cornerback covering Calvin Johnson on a “go” route. She assured the Wall Street Journal she merely wanted to “begin opening a new dialog.” And she told Politico regulation was essentially off the table as “that word just scares everybody.” The Chairwoman is correct. And they have reason to be frightened. When people are empowered to disseminate their own ideas, they don’t need government or the New York Times telling them what to think.
By Paul Jossey