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FEC chairman warns book publishers at risk of regulation at heated meeting

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Nov. 26, 2013: Shown here is a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Pasadena, Calif. (Reuters)

The Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission warned Wednesday that his agency colleagues could try to regulate book publishers, during a heated session over a forthcoming book by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. 

During the meeting, the FEC declined to definitively spare book publishers from the reach of campaign finance rules. 

This triggered a clash between Republican and Democratic members, with Chairman Lee Goodman warning that the deadlock could represent a "chill" for constitutional free-press rights. 

"That is a shame. ... We have wounded the free-press clause of the First Amendment," Goodman told FoxNews.com after the tense meeting. Goodman previously has warned that the commission wants to start regulating media. 

At issue during the meeting was a book by Rep. Ryan, R-Wis., being published by Grand Central Publishing. Goodman and other GOP members of the commission wanted the FEC to affirm that the book and its publisher are exempt from FEC regulation under what's known as the "media exemption" -- the same exemption that typically lets newspaper editorials, television channels and other outlets say what they want about political figures without worrying about campaign finance laws. 

Goodman argues that book publishers are entitled to the same rights. 

The commission did clear the Ryan book under a separate, more limited exemption. But they could not muster the four votes necessary to do what Goodman and other Republican members wanted. 

"I think that's unfortunate," Goodman said during the meeting, even raising the specter of book-banning. "We have effectively asserted regulatory jurisdiction over a book publisher." 

He and two other members of the commission subsequently released a six-page, highly annotated statement detailing their concerns. 

Democratic members of the committee, though, were quick to downplay Goodman's complaints as a technical quibble. 

Commissioner Ellen Weintraub noted that the Ryan book was still going forward unencumbered by FEC regulations. She said the public probably doesn't care "which exemption we use," and accused Goodman of using "overheated language." 

"That doesn't mean that we're banning books, that doesn't mean that we're regulating books," she said. 

Weintraub also noted that the exemption used for Ryan's book is the same used for one by liberal documentarian Michael Moore. 

Goodman for months has been warning that some in the FEC are keen to start regulating the media, despite a longstanding congressional ban on doing so. 

He points in part to a case that was considered in 2013 involving Boston TV station WCVB. The station had invited a Democratic and Republican congressional candidate for a debate-style program during the election a year earlier, but another third-party candidate complained he was illegally excluded. The FEC looked at the case, because of allegations the treatment of the other candidates was tantamount to a contribution. 

Ultimately, the FEC dismissed the complaint. But Goodman voiced concern that it was seriously considered at all. 

Goodman told FoxNews.com that in the latest case, the FEC should have affirmed that book publishers are exempt from commission regulations as part of the press. He said the failure to do so represents "an effort to constrict the media exemption within the commission." 

Reached for comment, a Ryan spokesperson declined to speak to the dispute before the commission, but said: "We appreciate the Commission's diligence and welcome the guidance provided in their advisory opinion concerning the publication and promotion of Paul Ryan's upcoming book, The Way Forward."

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