Just when you thought the Federal Election Commission had it out for the blogosphere, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took it up a notch and announced yesterday that it will soon vote on a city ordinance that would require local bloggers to register with the city Ethics Commission and report all blog-related costs that exceed $1,000 in the aggregate.The text of the proposed ordinance is here in pdf format. And much as I would love to catch Democrats cracking down on free speech, my own first-hand research (i.e., actually reading the darned thing) suggests that Messrs. Jacobs and Bassik have clearly misrepresented its impact.
Blogs that mention candidates for local office that receive more than 500 hits will be forced to pay a registration fee and will be subject to website traffic audits, according to Chad Jacobs, a San Francisco City Attorney.
The entire Board is set to vote on the measure on April 5th, 2005.
First, the bad:
It appears the ordinance would require any blogger who reaches an audience of at least 500 unique visitors (not hits) over a 90-day period to post a disclosure statement indicating who paid for any "Electioneering Communication" on his blog.
Section 1.161.5(c)(3) defines "Electioneering Communication" as "any communication, including but not limited to any broadcast, cable, satellite, radio, internet, or telephone communication" that refers to a San Francisco candidate and is distributed to at least than 500 potential voters within 90 days before the relevant election. A blog shown to have, or to be likely to have, at least 500 unique visitors, would clearly fall within the ambit of this provision.
Interestingly, Section 1.161.5(c)(3)(C)(vi) exempts "news stories, commentaries, or editorials distributed through any newspaper, radio station, television station, or other recognized news medium" not owned or controlled by a political party, committee or candidate.
Next, the good:
Section 1.161.5(b)(1) states that only someone who spends at least $1,000 during a calendar year on "Electioneering Communications" would need to report such expenditures to the San Francisco Ethics Commission.
Thus, it's not the case that "all blog-related costs" would have to be reported, but only those costs that paid for actual "Electioneering Communications". Obviously, this would be a tough line to draw, but if your blog has 50 posts about your pet cat Snuffles and one post urging readers to vote for Mr. Smith, some sort of pro rata assessment of site costs would seem to be appropriate. And while it might be reasonable to infer that enforcement of the ordinance might require all bloggers to register with the Ethics Commission, it does not mention such a requirement at all.
Indeed, it strikes me that very few, if any, bloggers would be affected by the proposed reporting requirements. Instead, the ordinance seems designed to force people to disclose payments made to bloggers in exchange for their saying nice things about a particular candidate. In other words, it's aimed more at the guys who paid Kos than at Kos himself.
This ordinance is not the first step on the road to Big Brother. It is designed to identify payments made to finance electioneering, whether through blogs, direct mail, television, or radio. It is not intended to regulate unpaid statements made voluntarily on blogs.
But why should the ordinance carve out an exemption for the mainstream media? As the it currently stands, I would have to disclose a payment I made to a blogger to get him to post favorably about my candidate, while a simlar payment to a member of the mainstream media could remain secret.
The implication is that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors thinks the mainstream media are above suspicion. They'd never take bribes, goes the thinking, so why even bother to include them in our new payment disclosure law? Such a view strkes me as hypocritical. If the MSM is possessed of such unimpeachable integrity, why should they require an exemption from the city's reporting requirements?