The consulting industry in California is waiting to see if the state's Fair Political Practices Commission follows through on a proposal to require candidates and campaigns to publicly report payments to people who generate promotional blog posts and social media commentary.
At its June meeting, the FPPC considered a draft regulation, which according to a memo “simply provides the public with an easy-to-use means of determining who is being paid to provide Internet content for campaigns.” The comments recorded during that meeting are being weighed and the FPPC will consider the regulation again at its August 22 meeting in Sacramento.
In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the bi-partisan commission, brushed aside concerns about free speech. "I would guess that this is not a regulation that's in search of a problem. I think that it's a problem," said Ravel, whose nomination to the Federal Election Commission is working its way through the Senate.
The issue of bloggers on the payroll came to the commission's attention after an incident in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary campaign. That's when it was uncovered that consultant Steve Frank’s Eagle Group, who was employed by Steve Poizner, paid a blogger who went by the name Sgt. York to post criticism of Meg Whiman on the now-defunct Red County Blog. After being revealed as a campaign-paid writer, the blogger was subsequently ejected from the site.
Wayne Johnson, a Sacramento-based Republican media consultant, questioned whether the commission, which acts like the state’s FEC, has the power to regulate social media commentary.
"The commission can certainly wade into this, but there is no way this or any other agency can regulate speech on the Internet, even if it were desirable or constitutional to do so," he tells C&E. "Particularly at risk is political speech which wants to (or needs to, to preserve life or livelihood) remain anonymous.
"The extent to which this proposal would be effective is roughly proportional to the extent it infringes on the First Amendment."
Johnson says he's been on the wrong side of a paid contributor's critiques, but that didn't change the legality of it.
"I freely admit it bugged me when an opposition campaign paid a blogger to smack my candidate, but these little conspiracies virtually always go public, so in that sense, it’s a self-solving problem," says Johnson, who worked with Poizner’s 2010 gubernatorial and earlier insurance commissioner campaigns.