San Francisco’s Supervisors Declare War Against Bloggers, Free Expression & Right to Privacy

It appears that a proposed San Francisco ordinance discovered by Michael Bassik hopes to crack down on free speech. It seems that here in my hometown, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell wants to issue an ordinance that, in Bassik’s words, requires any blog (under the title of “electioneering communication”) receiving more than 500 “local” hits a day (which would include this site) mentioning local candidates for office to register their sites with the San Francisco Ethics Commission and remain subject to “website traffic audits.”

The ordinance specifically goes after “electioneering communications,” which refers to “any communication, including but not limited to any broadcast, cable, satellite, radio, internet, or telephone communication, and any mailing, flyer, doorhanger, pamphlet, brochure, card, sign, billboard, facsimile, or printed advertisement that (A) refers to a clearly identified candidate for City elective office or a City elective officer who is the subject of a recall election; and (B) is distributed within 90 days prior to an election for the City elective officer to 500 or more individuals who are registered to vote or eligible to register to vote in the election or recall election. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that any broadcast, cable, satellite, or radio communication and any sign, billboard or printed advertisement is distributed to 500 or more individuals who are eligible to vote in or eligible to register to vote in an election for the City elective office soght by the candidate or a recall election regarding the City elective officer.”

This ordinance was drafted with the idea of holding pamphleteers accountable for their actions. Meaning that those highly annoying flyers that jam up your mailbox during election time would have a specific “Paid for by _________” so you can find out who originated these suckers and kvetch through the appropriate channels, if necessary.

This all sounds very noble and well-meaning. But there’s a problem with this, as the exclusionary provision for this term includes “news stories, commentaries, or editorials distributed through any newspaper, radio station, television station or other recognized news medium unless such news medium is owned or controlled by any political party, political committee or candidate.” (Emphasis added.)

So if an unrecognized “electioneering communication” spends more than $1,000 in a given year (or roughly around $83 a month, which would probably include most people’s web hosting and DSL bills), then they would need to file Kafkaesque paperwork and submit to the San Francisco Ethics Commission’s draconian policies. And if I am interpreting this correctly, this would apply to “unrecognized” weblogs, even if the weblog owner and operator never received a single cash payment from a candidate.

An unrecognized weblogger would have to prepare an itemized statement for how much they spend on their blogs, the full name, street address, city and zip code of who paid for it, a legible copy and/or transcript of all “electioneering communication” (a printout of the weblog in full?), and “any other information required by the Ethics Commission,” which essentially means everything.

So if the San Francisco Ethics Commission decides that (or another San Francisco-based site) is “unrecognized” and I happen to take the piss out of Bevan Duffy or Tom Ammiano one day, then I will now have to provide my personal information to the San Francisco Ethics Commission. Further, I will now have to track all web traffic by location, singling out the potential 500 San Francisco-based readers who read this site.

The expected fees and crackdown make this proposal a fundamentally undemocratic approach to local free speech. It is contrary to the variegated opinions that have long subsisted within this City. Further, it sets a bad precedent, something that might be adopted in other cities. And if this isn’t in direct violation of Article I of the California Constitution (“the right to privacy”) and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it certainly skirts around it.

The Board of Supervisors is set to vote on this ordinance (what’s known as a “first passing”) on April 5, 2005 (Tuesday) at 10:00 AM. Beyond sending letters and emails to all of the Supervisors, I would also advise anyone who cares (and can make it) to attend this meeting at City Hall (the Legislative Chamber, Second Floor, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place). (Mapquest link) Under the agenda, there will be an opportuntiy for public comment, up to three minutes per person. So if Ordinance 041489 pisses you off, this is the time to voice your dissent. I should point out that even if the Ordinance is passed on first reading, the Ordinance can be amended to recognize weblogs and other online political sites to be excluded as an “electioneering communication.”

I plan to be there myself.

In the meantime, letters, phone calls and emails to all of the Supervisors are encouraged — preferably today, so that the Supervisors will get this input before their Tuesday meeting. Here is a complete list of San Francisco supervisors:

Jake McGoldrick
District 1
Phone: (415) 554-7410
Fax: (415) 554-7415

Michela Alioto-Pier
District 2
(Note: Supervisor Alioto-Pier dissented when this Ordinance was drafted in committee. She might be our most vocal supporter against the Ordinance on Tuesday’s meeting, if we remind her of the overbroad definition of “electioneering communication.”)
Phone: (415) 554-7752
Fax: (415) 554-7843

Aaron Peskin (Board President)
District 3
Phone: (415) 554-7450
Fax: (415) 554-7454

Fiona Ma
District 4
Phone: (415) 554-7460
Fax: (415) 554-7432

Ross Mirkarimi
District 5
Phone: (415) 554-7630
Fax: (415) 554-7634

Chris Daly
District 6
Phone: (415) 554-7970

Sean Elsbernd
District 7
Phone: (415) 554-6516
Fax: (415) 554-6546

Bevan Duffy
District 8
Phone: (415) 554-6968
Fax: (415) 554-6909

Tom Ammiano
District 9
Phone: (415) 554-5144
Fax: (415) 554-6255

Sophie Maxwell
District 10
Phone: (415) 554-7670
Fax: (415) 554-7674

Gerardo Sandoval
District 11
Phone: (415) 554-6975
Fax: (415) 554-6979

[UPDATE: Chris Nolan has the backstory on this.]