Presidential candidate George W. Bush may be getting into an online free-speech debate as he attempts to battle a website that parodies his campaign.
In a widely reported move last week, the Bush campaign announced it had bought up dozens of URLs that might potentially be used to spoof the candidate's run for president.
However, the Bush campaign was unable to purchase one URL, which a critic is now using to lambaste the Presidential hopeful and son of former president George Bush.
That critic is now claiming that Bush is resorting to questionable tactics to try to shut him down. Zack Exley, a Boston-based computer consultant, runs gwbush.com. The site contains a parody on Bush's official sight, as well as information about Bush's alleged past cocaine use and other political satire. Much of the content is provided by rtmark.com, a site that protests the influence of corporations on politics.
On April 14, Benjamin Ginsburg, an attorney who represents the Bush campaign for the Washington law firm Patton Boggs LLP, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Exley. The letter charged Exley with copyright violations, as well as protesting his links to "offensive" websites. Ginsburg said the offending material, including pictures and other material taken directly from the official Bush site, was taken down within a few days of the letter being sent.
However, Patton Boggs followed this action on May 3 with a letter to the Federal Elections Commission. It said that the gwbush.com site violates the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971, because it has not registered as a political committee.
The letter claims that Exley had spent more that $250 on the site, and that the value of the site was over $1,000. These facts, combined with the sites stated goal of damaging the Bush campaign, should mean that the site should be considered a political committee. Registering as a political committee would cost Exley nothing, Ginsburg said. However, it would require the site to report who its donors were, as well as bar it from taking donations from corporations.
Exley counters that such a registration would involve consultations with lawyers and accountants that are beyond his financial means. In other words, he said, such a ruling from the FEC would shut him down.
Exley says his site was the reason the Bush campaign bought up about 60 URLs to phrases such as bushbites.com and bushsux.org. Members of the Bush campaign have been quoted in the media as saying they bought the sites a year ago. However, the Network Solutions databases states most of these URLs were registered to Bush associate Karl Rove on Feb. 12, 1999.
Ginsburg admits that the Bush campaign is hoping to set a precedent by forcing Exley to register his site as a political committee.
"One of the really interesting things in this election cycle that is different from the past is the way information can be disseminated," Ginsburg said. "There is a lot of scurrilous material that needs to be addressed."
Exley countered that if he is forced to decide between going through an expensive registration process of shut his site down, it will set a chilling precedent for Web discourse.
"If everyone who was talking about candidates on the Internet had to go through that process it would definitely inhibit political speech," Exley said.
(c) 1999 CMP Media Inc.