Campaign 'Tweets' Could Face New Rules in California

Change is coming to online political campaigning in California.

For years, campaigns have been required to disclose when they pay to put a message on television, radio or send out an advertisement in the mail. Now, officials in California are looking to apply the same rules to electronic communications such as texts, web videos and twitter messages.

Commissioners at the California Fair Political Practices Commission say their proposals are an extension of existing regulations.

“It has become increasingly clear to us that voters need to know by weren’t getting the information about who was sponsoring online communication,” says Dan Schnur, Chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPIC).

The proposals, which are strongly supported by most members of the FPPC, have not yet been adopted, but could get the seal of approval in October.

If approved, campaigns seeking statewide office or advocating for or against ballot measures, will have to provide identification to recipients of their message. Short messages sent via Twitter, which have 145 character limit, will be held up to this standard, a requirement with which free speech advocates do not support.

“It’s the fact that you have a limited space to say something and the government is telling you that you have to use some of that for what they think should be saying,” says Allison Hayward with the Center for Competitive Politics.

But constitutional law experts think the regulations will hold up in court.

“The Supreme Court has said that it is ok to impose speech requirements especially when it comes to political campaigns,” points out Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA Law School. “It makes sense that the same rules would pretty much apply to the same way to online communications including web pages, emails and twitter.”

Evading any sort regulation are political bloggers who increasingly are being paid by campaigns to write on their behalf. While the FPPC recognizes that bloggers' motivations are not often transparent to readers, they are not prepared to regulate them yet.

“If people think it’s necessary to ask the individual to identify the source of payments that he or she is receiving on, accompanying their blog, that is something we will look at down the line,” says Schnur.

On requiring ‘tweets’ to have identification, Schnur says campaigns can include a one-letter link, or tiny URL, in the message, so that recipients can be directed to its sponsors.

The rules, if approved, would go into effect next year, and not apply to candidates who seek office this November