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Election commission dismisses Bush's Web complaint

Federal regulators drop a case against a satirist who mocked presidential candidate George W. Bush online, but the action leaves questions about online political speech unanswered.

    Federal regulators have dropped a case against a satirist who mocked presidential candidate George W. Bush online, but the action still leaves questions about online political speech unanswered.

    The Bush campaign lodged a complaint against 30-year-old Zach Exley shortly after he created his parody Web site, GWBush.com, nearly a year ago. On Friday, the Federal Election Commission quietly dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it was too low a priority to warrant use of FEC resources.

    Policy analysts are pleased with the outcome but worry that the commission's lack of action leaves the issue open for interpretation in the future.

    "The FEC needs to speak clearly on the issue and speak in a way of general applicability," said James X. Dempsey, senior staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. "The FEC shouldn't view these on a case-by-case basis but should instead look at the issue in a way that gives clarity and assurance to all Internet users."

    Earlier this year, election regulators collected suggestions from individuals and organizations on how to regulate political activity on the Web, if at all. In response, the commission received more than a thousand emails and letters from the online public urging the FEC to keep their hands off the Net.

    The commission took no further action after the comment period ended in January. In the meantime, complaints have been evaluated one by one, sometimes with contradictory results.

    Lately, regulators have appeared reluctant to curb political activity on the Web, Dempsey said.

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    "I don't think individuals have anything to fear from the FEC," he said. "In fact, I think the message to federal campaigns is, don't try to quash these Web sites."

    Members of the Bush campaign could not immediately be reached for comment. Benjamin Ginsberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who handled the case for Bush, also could not be reached.

    Ginsberg had argued that Exley's activities amounted to campaigning that should comply with relevant election laws. The complaint said Exley should be required to post a disclaimer identifying the site's origin, to register with the FEC as a political action committee, and to disclose the amount of money spent on the site.

    Exley, in turn, gained the support of the conservative Rutherford Institute, which financed the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

    The complaint had an unintended effect of driving thousands of visitors to Exley's parody site, which features cartoons of Bush with cocaine on his nose and letters from federal inmates serving time on drug offenses.

    "I put up this little joke site and Bush blew it into a big deal," said Exley, who added that he gets about 400,000 new visitors to the Web site each month.

    Exley has taken advantage of the boost in traffic by selling buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts ridiculing Bush. "It would be un-American if I didn't try to sell these people something," he said.