- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

The free-speech regulators won a victory Wednesday when the House failed to pass the Online Freedom of Speech Act by the required two-thirds majority. That the bill received a simple majority (225-182) means that the Internet as we’ve come to know and love it might still exist next year. But the regulators and their friends in Congress — namely, Reps. Chris Shays and Marty Meehan — strangely seem bound and determined to throw the federal blanket over the biggest exercise in First Amendment rights in U.S. history.

Of course, they don’t see it that way — at least we hope they don’t. To Messrs. Shays and Meehan, the bill “will exempt the Internet from campaign finance laws, thus opening up a major loophole for soft money to once again flow freely into our political system.” To hear them tell it, it’s amazing the republic lasted as long as it did before the coming of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act.

Ironically, it is the feds who want nothing to do with Internet regulation. The Federal Election Commission voted 4-2 to exempt the Internet from McCain-Feingold a few years ago, only to be told by a federal judge that it couldn’t. The ruling may or may not have been the correct decision, but if it was, then the problem is with McCain-Feingold, which ultimately has done terribly little to alleviate corruption in political campaigns. The FEC is busy figuring out how to subject the Internet to McCain-Feingold with as light a touch as possible. Judging by the commissioner Bradley Smith’s public statements, it will do its best, but it has to follow the law, which means it doesn’t look good for the lonely blogger. A decision is expected in the next several weeks.

Regardless of Wednesday’s vote, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the bill’s sponsor, isn’t finished. His office tells us that he and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are committed to getting the bill passed — hopefully needing just a simple majority next time — before the FEC releases the new rules. The Senate has yet to consider a companion bill sponsored by Sens. Harry Reid and Tom Coburn, and it’s not very likely they’ll do so before the new year.

The bill’s failure is an unfortunate event, but not definitive. Freedom of speech on the Internet is a bipartisan issue, much more so than McCain-Feingold ever was. It unites bloggers left and right, congressmen across the aisle and Americans in blue states and red.

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