Civil Liberties

'The Most Expansive Intrusion on First Amendment Rights Ever'?


Richard Viguerie claims a lobbying reform bill the Senate is considering would force bloggers and political activists to register with the government, under the threat of criminal penalties:

Section 220 of S. 1, the lobbying reform bill currently before the Senate, would require grassroots causes, even bloggers, who communicate to 500 or more members of the public on policy matters, to register and report quarterly to Congress the same as the big K Street lobbyists. Section 220 would amend existing lobbying reporting law by creating the most expansive intrusion on First Amendment rights ever. For the first time in history, critics of Congress will need to register and report with Congress itself.

The bill would require reporting of "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying," but defines "paid" merely as communications to 500 or more members of the public, with no other qualifiers. On January 9, the Senate passed Amendment 7 to S. 1, to create criminal penalties, including up to one year in jail, if someone "knowingly and willingly fails to file or report."

Viguerie, whose warning has been picked up by several online publications, says Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who introduced the penalty amendment, and Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) are trying to remove Section 220. If so, I guess they agree with Viguerie's interpretation, but I'm not so sure.

The text of S. 1 is available here. Section 220 defines "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" as "any paid attempt in support of lobbying contacts on behalf of a client to influence the general public or segments thereof to contact one or more covered legislative or executive branch officials (or Congress as a whole) to urge such officials (or Congress) to take specific action with respect to a matter described in section 3(8)(A), except that such term does not include any communications by an entity directed to its members, employees, officers, or shareholders." The definition also excludes efforts "directed at less than 500 members of the general public." Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see how that would cover bloggers or grassroots activists who are not being paid by a client to lobby the government. 

Update: According to the ACLU, which opposes Section 220, grassroots political groups could be affected because "'client' under existing law includes the organization that employs an in-house staff person or person who lobbies. If, for example, the ACLU hires an individual to stimulate grassroots lobbying on behalf of the ACLU and pays that individual for her efforts in amounts exceeding $25,000, it appears that individual would be considered a grassroots lobbying firm, and would have to register and report as such. The fact that the ACLU employs that individual appears to be irrelevant to this provision." The quote is from a letter to senators dated January 17, 2007, which does not seem to be online, but the ACLU sent a similar letter last year that is.

Another Update: Mark Fitzgibbons of American Target Advertising, who sent me the ACLU letter, explains how some bloggers could be covered by the law: Title 2, Section 1602 of the U.S. Code says a "client" is "any person or entity that employs or retains another person for financial or other compensation to conduct lobbying activities on behalf of that person or entity." It adds that "a person or entity whose employees act as lobbyists on its own behalf is both a client and an employer of such employees." An "employee" includes "a proprietor of a person or entity." A "lobbyist" is "any individual who is employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation." Therefore, says Fitzgibbons, "a blogger, acting in a sole proprietorship capacity, may be both the client and lobbyist by engaging in lobbying activity, which would be redefined to include communications to more than 500 members of the public." If your blog generates income, I gather, you're a "sole proprietor," making you both employer and employee, client and lobbyist. If, like most bloggers, you don't make any money from blogging, you're in the clear. Otherwise, assuming this bill passes in its current form, you'd better hire a lawyer.