What initially prompted the torrent of messages targeting Ravel appears to be an Oct. 25, 2014, banner headline on the Drudge Report: “DEMS ON FEC MOVE TO REGULATE DRUDGE.” (Editors at the website did not return requests for comment.)
The Drudge Report headline linked to a Washington Examiner article that reported on Ravel’s comments about the FEC revisiting Internet regulations.
The story also quotes then-FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican who warned that Ravel’s interest in stronger Internet regulations could lead to bloggers and politically active news outlets facing new rules.
“I told you this was coming,” Goodman said.
Goodman underscored his concerns about Internet regulation soon afterward during a pair of Fox News interviews.
“I can’t imagine a regulatory regime reaching deep into the Internet,” he told host Tucker Carlson.
“It’s really a specter of a government review board … the government needs to know when to leave well enough alone,” he later told host Steve Doocy.
Ravel, who in 2015 followed Goodman as FEC chairman, told the Center for Public Integrity that she believes Goodman’s comments contributed to the threats against her.
“He was arguing that I was trying to squelch free speech — I wasn’t — and it put me in an awkward position,” said Ravel, who since joining the FEC in late 2013 has routinely advocated for stronger election rules and enforcement and sometimes antagonized her Republican colleagues whom she’s accused of failing to enforce certain election laws.
“I feel very strongly about the First Amendment and the rights of the press,” Ravel said. “My point is that the Internet has advanced greatly since 2006, and the FEC’s rules about it are, potentially, obsolete. Our role is to talk about them.”
Goodman’s office said the commissioner wasn’t available to be interviewed. But Goodman emailed a statement disavowing threats against her.
“Unfortunately, too many people believe that the way to counter speech with which they disagree is to censor or threaten the speaker,” Goodman wrote. “The appropriate way to challenge an idea one disagrees with is to debate the idea on the merits. Commissioner Ravel's formidable voice on regulatory issues should not be diminished by inappropriate threats or censorship."
Current FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, called for civility, saying there is “no place in these debates for threats of violence or things of that nature.”
The messages Ravel has received, Petersen added, are “beyond the pale.”
Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who acknowledged receiving “a few” strongly worded emails of her own in recent months, declined to otherwise comment. Commissioners Steven Walther, an independent, also declined to comment, while Caroline Hunter, a Republican, did not return interview requests.
The 2006 Internet communication regulations the FEC approved in a unanimous vote left most online political messaging unregulated. Only paid political ads published online became subject to similar rules governing traditional political messages, such as those that appear on television or radio.
Since then, the FEC has generally addressed digital and Internet political communications and transactions on a case-by-case basis.
In 2010, for example, Google asked the FEC whether it could sell “AdWords” text ad space to political candidates and committees without requiring them to include disclaimers. The commission, in a 4-2 vote, determined that Google could generally avoid running disclaimers.
Then in 2011, Facebook asked the FEC to confirm that its “small, character-limited ads” about politics are exempt from federal rules requiring disclaimers. In a 3-3 vote, the commission deadlocked on the matter.
The FEC has also grappled with cases ranging from political donations made via text message to whether candidates and committees may accept contributions in the form of digital currency, such as Bitcoin.
If the FEC addresses the Internet in any fashion this election year, expect it to be along these narrow lines.