Senate: Write Away, Bloggers

Bloggers are breathing a little easier today after the U.S. Senate struck language from its ethics reform legislation, approved Thursday night, that would have required some online activists to register and report to Congress as lobbyists.

On a vote of 55-43, the Senate agreed to drop provisions in Section 220 of the bill — The Disclosure of Paid Efforts to Stimulate Grassroots Lobbying — targeting grassroots activists, including bloggers, who communicate on Washington policy matters to more than 500 people.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) introduced the amendment to do away with the provisions in Section 220, contending the section imposed onerous reporting requirements on advocacy groups and limited their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly and the right to petition the government.

Seven Democrats joined 48 Republicans in approving Bennett’s amendment. After the vote on Section 220, the Senate approved the overall ethics bill, 96-2.

“This is a clear victory for the Constitution, the First Amendment and grassroots organizations who want their voices to be heard by Congress,” Bennett said in a statement. “Today, we reaffirmed that the zenith of the Bill of Rights is free speech, the right to petition the government and the right to peacefully assemble.”

The U.S. House has yet to introduce an ethics package, but last year Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is now the Speaker of the House, introduced legislation similar to the original language in Section 220 of the Senate bill. Pelosi’s office did not return calls for comment on the House’s ethics plan in 2007.

Any differences between the Senate and House versions of ethic reform would have to be worked out in a conference committee.

The original provision in the Senate bill was intended by Democrats to force so-called “astroturf” organizations that purport to represent the general public but, in fact, are organized and financed by special-interest groups seeking to influence public policy. Democrats sought in the ethics bill to force these groups to disclose the source of their funding.

Instead, they ran into First Amendment objections from a disparate array of groups that included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Conservative Union and the National Right to Life Committee.

“The bill was not drafted very well,” Marvin Johnson, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, told “It was difficult to say bloggers would not have been covered by the language.”

As originally proposed, Section 220 would have required quarterly reporting of “paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying.” The bill language defined “paid” as any effort to communicate with 500 or more members of the public to contact Congress. Violations of the provision would have resulted in jail time and a maximum fine of $200,000.

“The First Amendment is what got us involved in this,” Johnson said. “They [Democrats] are making an assumption that a person contacting Congress is being told to contact lawmakers. The whole premise is flawed. Why does it matter where they came up with their opinions?”

Mark Fitzgibbons, a spokesman for conservative stalwart Richard A. Viguerie’s, said the original language of Section 220 treated small grassroots groups and bloggers the same as the powerful Washington K Street lobbyists.

“Politicians don’t like their critics,” he said.

Viguerie, who pioneered the political direct mail movement that helped launch Ronald Reagan to the presidency, said in a statement issued before Thursday night’s vote: “The U. S. Senate would impose criminal penalties, even jail time, on grassroots causes and citizens who criticize Congress.”

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