Web Parodies Provide Particular Problems

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In the nascent field of cyber civil liberties, you can chalk up one in favor of First Amendment purists. The Federal Election Commission has voted against the George W. Bush campaign after it complained that a parody site with the domain name "gwbush.com" was a form of anti-Bush electioneering and should be subject to FEC rules governing campaign spending. The site, which closely follows the look of the Bush campaign's official web pages, contains subtly headlined articles suggesting that Bush used illegal drugs and may be unqualified to be president. Bush's official site is addressed "georgewbush.com." According to the New York Times, the commission, which delivered its ruling on Friday, said it dismissed the complaint because it had more important issues to investigate.

All the same, you can bet this isn't the last we've heard on the issues of web politicking and the differences between web parodies and those in other media. First, it is much easier for Internet parodists to produce material similar to the original than, say, those working in print or broadcast media. Then there is the question of the domain name, or URL. Although the Bush camp preemptively bought dozens of domain names, including georgebush.com, over a year ago in an attempt to stave off such parodies, they were unable to cover all the bases. And thus on the unofficial site in question, it takes quite a while for the reader to realize that not all is what it appears to be. In the non-Internet world, on the other hand, if someone wanted to make fun of, say, TIME magazine, they could do everything but use the exact, copyrighted name, which would provide a more obvious indication of a parody.

"The First Amendment protects the right to waste somebody's time," says TIME legal reporter Alain Sanders. "In all political speech there's an element of caveat emptor — it's up to the consumer to discern how truthful what they're reading and hearing is." In addition, says Sanders, "political speech receives the most protection of any type of speech under the First Amendment. And as part of political speech, parody is protected. The question is at what point does a parody descend into what might be considered fraudulent activity, in which you're soliciting money under false pretenses." On that count, the Bush camp would seem to have a better, though still slim, chance of success: gwbush.com has an e-commerce component, including touts for the book "Fortunate Son," in which tabloid journalist J. H. Hatfield argues that Bush is guilty of a host of crimes, including cocaine use. It could conceivably be argued that a hurried Bush supporter could easily click on the site and buy the book without realizing it's negative. That, however, isn't an FEC problem.