Election Commission said on Friday that it had dismissed the
complaint on the grounds that it was too low a priority to warrant the
use of the commission's resources.
By dismissing the case in this way, the agency failed to resolve an
issue raised by the complaint and by the commission's previous
opinions on Internet matters: whether the activities of individuals
advocating the election or defeat of political candidates online are
subject to government regulation, much like political action
committees that spend millions of dollars on mailings and television
The creator of the site, Zack Exley, said he was pleased with the
dismissal when he learned of it from a reporter Monday. But he said he
was concerned that the FEC had not addressed the larger issue of
political activity by individual voters on the Web.
"If that means that my case is closed, that's good for me," said
Exley, who is a computer consultant in New York. "But the issue is
still open, and that means that the FEC still has to do the right
thing in the end."
In the complaint, which was filed nearly a year ago, Benjamin L.
Ginsberg, a lawyer for the Bush campaign, argued that Exley was
campaigning and should comply with relevant election laws. The
complaint said Exley should be required to post a disclaimer
identifying the site's origin, to file with the FEC as a political
action committee and to disclose the amount of money spent on the
When asked whether the Bush campaign planned any further action
against the parody site, Scott McClellan, a campaign spokesman, said
that the campaign had not done anything new to address the issue since
"We just hope people will use good judgment and common sense,"
McClellan said. "If you look at all the Web sites, you'll see that
free speech is alive and well in America, and Governor Bush has a very
FEC officials did not comment, in keeping with a policy of not
discussing compliance cases. In a summary of the case, an investigator
for the commission wrote: "There is no evidence of serious intent to
violate the FECA [Federal Election Campaign Act], and this matter is
less significant relative to other matter pending before the
Commission." The file was closed on Feb. 29, and the dismissal was
made public late Friday.
At the time the complaint was filed, the Bush campaign was
criticized for its handling of the matter. Campaign officials
contended that they needed to do something about gwbush.com because
the public was confusing it with the official site at georgewbush.com.
But the publicity surrounding the complaint drove thousands of
curious visitors to the parody site. The site, in various
incarnations, has featured cartoons of the governor with cocaine on
his face and letters from Texas inmates convicted of drug-related
The site got more attention when the governor responded to a
question about it by telling reporters, "There ought to be limits to
Internet political experts said that the campaign's approach to the
matter showed that the governor's advisers, who were running a
traditional television-oriented campaign, lacked sophistication in the
handling of the Internet.
The Bush complaint also threw a spotlight on the FEC's handling of
Internet issues. In the past, the FEC has ruled that people like
Exley, if they spent enough money, could be required to register as
political action committees. Such arguments have alarmed civil
libertarians, who have warned that the approach could chill political
speech on the Internet.
"Once again, the FEC has left the individual citizen, voter or
unaffiliated activist in legal limbo," said James X. Dempsey, senior
staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit
group in Washington.
"It's very unlikely that the FEC is going to take legal action to
impose fines or registration requirements on the individual Internet
user who creates a Web page criticizing or praising a political
candidate," he said. "But why didn't they just come out and say that?"
Dempsey said that he might interpret the action on the Bush
complaint as a sign that regulators would be unwilling to use their
resources to fine individuals who advocate the election or defeat of a
Concerns about the commission's actions against people expressing
political opinions online came to the fore last year. In a
controversial opinion issued in 1998, the commission found that a Web
site built by Leo Smith, a supporter of a Congressional candidate in
Connecticut, should be treated as a campaign expenditure because it
directed visitors to vote for a candidate.
Though the commission did not determine whether Smith's site cost
enough to trigger reporting requirements, it specified that Web site
costs include a portion of "the domain name registration fee, the
amount invested in the hardware (computer and peripherals) that
created the Web site and the utility costs associated with creating
and maintaining the site."
Under this interpretation, if a Web publisher spent $250 on a site,
he would be required to file a disclosure form with the FEC. If he
spent more than $1,000, he would have to register as a political
The commission has addressed Internet campaigning in several
opinions since then. Though the recent opinions have taken a more
laissez-faire approach to the Internet, commissioners have never
clarified the legal status of individuals like Smith who call for the
election or defeat of candidates online.
Exley said that because the FEC did not decide on this issue, the
onus is on the public to keep watch. "We have to keep our eye on
things, and make sure they do the right thing in the end," he said.
These sites are not part of The
New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their
content or availability.
Rebecca Fairley Raney at [email protected] welcomes your
comments and suggestions.