January 19, 2007
Senate Bill 1 and House Resolution 4682 under Fire
Bad things often come in good packages. Currently both houses of congess are considering ethics bills to provide for much-needed lobbying and earmark reform. However, buried in one section of both house and senate bills are provisions to severely restrict the ability of grassroots organizations to monitor the actions of their elected representatives and report on these to their clients. In reality, it will achieving exactly the opposite of ethics reform because it allows for more congressional acvitivty away from public scrutiny.
The advent of alternative media has had a major impact on U.S. politics for the last twenty years. Slowly but surely the exclusive chokehold the country's national information gatekeepers -- major radio and TV networks plus the major newswire services -- previously held on the flow of news has been eroded by talk radio, both on-air and internet, weblogs and online newspapers.
A decade ago politicians discovered with much chagrin that this "alternative media" was actually affecting the outcomes of elections and limiting what they could get away with once in office. Statements and actions by politicians which the mainliners left unchallenged were examined minutely in the alternative media. Even small sections of pending bills lawmakers hoped wouldn't be noticed have made it into blogs and on the air in record time, resulting in angry calls to force removal of the offending provisions. There are too many people watching them carefully and reporting through the relatively inexpensive medium of the internet.
Now it seems some congressmen want to fight back. Buried within Senate Bill One, which as we pointed out promotes long-sought lobbying reform, exists Section 220 defining individuals or organizations reaching more than 500 people on a grassroots level with information about political issues as lobbying organizations, if the information can be construed as urging people to contact congress.
These individuals or groups would be required to register and subsequently file unwieldy amounts of paperwork, whenever they transmit political information to their subscribers. Failure to do so would result in $50,000-$100,000 fines per violation plus jail time for willful failure to comply. This would be a staggering burden of proof and compliance to small grass roots individuals or organizations affected by the new requirements.
Depending on how the language of the bill is interpreted, groups affected by this opprobrious legislation includes publishers of small newsletters and financial publications, websites, broadcast and internet talk show hosts, alternative radio shows, public interest organizations, civic organizations, even churches and religious denominations, and other nonprofit groups. The definitions include even private individuals, who might voluntarily pay for media space to distribute important messages to the general public on political matters with which they are concerned.
Under Senate Bill One and its House companion bill H.R. 4682 an organization is classified as a “grassroots lobbying firm” if it attempts to influence the general public to contact federal officials in order to express their own views on a federal issue. It must spend only only $50,000 ($25,000 under the House bill) for such efforts in a quarterly period, it will be required to register as lobbyists. Many radio programs and websites easily spend that amount of money in the course of their activities.
This is not the first time Congress has sought to impede freedom of speech. Every so often an attempt is made to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to provide equal time and balanced viewpoints for political and social issues. While this sounds fair, and it worked when only editorials were involved, in reality it creates a nightmare for radio and TV station licensees that engage in talk formats, because the paperwork and logistics required to comply with such a law make it impossible for the stations to function. As such the Fairness Doctrine is a stealth way to surpress free speech on radio stations by making it very difficult for them to function. As such, even the Financial Sense Newshour might be forced "off the air."
Providing this type of compliance for talk shows is impossible and the risk of large fines for violations of arbitrary stipulations is so great, that stations tend to cancel talk shows and run programming they consider to be less "risky." In essence the talk shows can be chased off the air just with the threat of arbitrary fines and penalties. Senate Bill One will have the same effect on small grassroots publishers, websites, radio shows and organizations if it passes as is. Remember, failure to jump through all the paperwork hoops properly for Senate Bill One could result in $50,000-$100,000 fines per violation!
Currently, an amendment to Senate Bill One been proposed by Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) to remove Subsection 220 from the bill, which includes grassroots organizations among those classified as lobbying organizations. Persons concerned about the loss of alternative media and the danger to free speech should contact their senators and urge them to vote for the Bennett amendment. Members of the House should be urged to vote against provisions in House Resolution 4682, which included grassroots organizations.
It's interesting to note that if Senate Bill One were currently law, writing this would be illegal because we had not filed the proper paperwork with the federal government. Assaults like this on the First Amendment and the right of the people to have free speech and seek redress must not to be tolerated in whatever form they appear.
There is debate among legal experts as to exactly how the provisions of Senate Bill One could ultimately be interpreted and applied, which brings us down to a rule of thumb: If we can't agree what this means as a bill now, we definitely don't want it as law later.
© 2007 John Loeffler - All Rights Reserved