An official with the State Elections Enforcement Commission thinks so, but proponents and opponents of campaign finance reform believe that’s just “silly.”
Beth Rotman, the executive director of the Citizens’ Election Program, said the campaign finance law can only regulate expenditures and contributions, not speech. However, she disagrees with Rep. Timothy O’Brien of New Britain, who believes speech on the Internet by candidates and their supporters is free.
“I don’t believe it’s free,” Rotman said in an interview at the Capitol Thursday. As a regulatory agency she said she has to follow the law and at the moment the law says it’s an expenditure for a candidate and has to be reported and itemized.
She said if she accepted the idea that the Internet was free then the disclosure requirement would be lost.
If a supporter expresses their support for a candidate it could be considered an in-kind contribution to the campaign, but Rotman understands reporting these utterances could be seen as problematic for a campaign. She said this is something that hasn’t been actively enforced and would be considered de minimus under the bill the Senate overrode Thursday.
However, there’s no exemption for it under the current law so she couldn’t say whether it’s something that would or wouldn’t be enforced.
“We get stuck in the unenviable position of interpreting this and it happens to be what the law is,” Rotman said.
O’Brien disagrees that these utterances by candidates and their supporters on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are covered under the current law. He said if that’s the SEEC’s interpretation then it’s “really nitpicking.”
“The clean elections law was designed to regulate money, not speech,” he said.
O’Brien argued that if he included a disclaimer for his campaign on Twitter, which only allows 140 characters, the disclaimer alone would account for 96.
“It’s a little silly,” he said.
Rotman said she understands that it’s impracticable to ask for a disclaimer on Twitter. And she said none of the candidates using the system in 2008 were ever fined for the de minimus contributions or expenditures.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield said he doesn’t understand how posting something on Facebook is any different than standing up in a crowded restaurant and shouting your support for a specific candidate.
“It’s speech,” McKinney said. “It appears they want to interpret the law their way and not the way it was written.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk said it’s like putting a price tag on a conversation.
“They’re making it up as they go along,” he said.
O’Brien argues in a blog post titled “State Elections Enforcement Commission FAIL,”that Internet services and social networking sites should be exempt from the campaign finance law.
If the SEEC‘s interpretation of the law is correct, then it “could make it harder or even impossible for everyday people to use the great promise that the internet offers for democracy,” O’Brien wrote.
“The election laws are written to give SEEC a lot of discretion so that they can exercise common sense in making sure that the real purpose of campaign finance law is fulfilled.”
O’Brien’s blog post was widely distributed over the Internet on social networking sites this week and lawmakers running for re-election were quick to respond to it by putting up notices on their Facebook pages.
Rep. Tony Hwang of Fairfield and Rep. Michael Lawlor of East Haven wrote similar entries which read: “And, if anyone cares, everything that I write on this Facebook page is approved by me, but nothing anyone else writes on here is approved by me. And, for what it is worth, nothing anywhere on this Facebook page is paid for by me or by the Committee to Re Elect Mike Lawlor, Sam Giglio, Treasure, because this is all free. So, I think and assume these posts are saved forever unless deleted by me, so there’s your disclaimer for everything previously and subsequently posted on this site.”
Hwang’s entry had his committee name and campaign treasurer’s name instead of Lawlor’s.