regulators have dropped a case against a satirist who mocked
presidential candidate George W. Bush online, but the action still
leaves questions about online political speech unanswered.
The Bush campaign lodged a complaint against 30-year-old Zach
Exley shortly after he created his parody Web site, GWBush.com, nearly a year ago. On
Friday, the Federal Election
Commission quietly dismissed the complaint on the grounds that
it was too low a priority to warrant use of FEC resources.
analysts are pleased with the outcome but worry that the
commission's lack of action leaves the issue open for interpretation
in the future.
the "Big Picture"
"The FEC needs to speak clearly on the issue and speak in a way
of general applicability," said James X. Dempsey, senior staff
counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit
group in Washington, D.C. "The FEC shouldn't view these on a
case-by-case basis but should instead look at the issue in a way
that gives clarity and assurance to all Internet users."
Earlier this year, election regulators collected
suggestions from individuals and organizations on how to regulate
political activity on the Web, if at all. In response,
the commission received more than a thousand emails and letters from
the online public urging the FEC to keep their hands off the Net.
The commission took no further action after the comment period
ended in January. In the meantime, complaints have been evaluated
one by one, sometimes with contradictory results.
Lately, regulators have appeared reluctant to curb political
activity on the Web, Dempsey said.
don't think individuals have anything to fear from the FEC," he
said. "In fact, I think the message to federal campaigns is, don't
try to quash these Web sites."
Members of the Bush campaign could not immediately be reached for
comment. Benjamin Ginsberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who handled
the case for Bush, also could not be reached.
Ginsberg had argued that Exley's activities amounted to
campaigning that should comply with relevant election laws. The
complaint said Exley should be required to post a disclaimer
identifying the site's origin, to register with the FEC as a
political action committee, and to disclose the amount of money
spent on the site.
Exley, in turn, gained the support of the conservative Rutherford
Institute, which financed the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
The complaint had an unintended effect of driving thousands of
visitors to Exley's parody site, which features cartoons of Bush
with cocaine on his nose and letters from federal inmates serving
time on drug offenses.
"I put up this little joke site and Bush blew it into a big
deal," said Exley, who added that he gets about 400,000 new visitors
to the Web site each month.
Exley has taken advantage of the boost in traffic by selling
buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts ridiculing Bush. "It would be
un-American if I didn't try to sell these people something," he