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Republican warns of creeping threat of media regulation at FEC

Republican warns of creeping threat of media regulation at FEC
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Publishers and filmmakers should be wary of Democrats at the Federal Election Commission trying to squeeze them out of an exemption created for the press, according to FEC Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman

Goodman used a five-page statement, released Monday, to scold Democrats on the commission for trying to continue an investigation into a company that created and distributed a conspiracy theory film ahead of the 2012 election that claimed that President Obama's real father was Franklin Marshall Davis, described as "an American Communist."

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The FEC ultimately voted in February to close the case without taking any action — an increasingly common occurrence with the 3-3 deadlock at the commission that is divided between the two parties. 

Though no action was taken, Goodman said the implication of the Democrats' position could have been much broader than a fringe film. 

"Imagine the specter of a government investigation and punishment of a filmmaker for showing a political film in over 500 theaters nationally," Goodman wrote

A complaint filed in 2014 alleged that Highway 61 Entertainment owner Joel Gilbert should have reported the cost of distributing the film and included a disclaimer along with it. The film "Dreams from my Real Father: The Story of Reds and Deception" is described as a play on Obama's actual autobiography with a narrator impersonating the president.

The FEC requires many organizations to report the donations they receive and any expenses used when attempting to sway federal elections. However, there is a broad press exemption for news or commentary released through newspapers, magazines and other media as long as they are not owned by a political committee or a candidate. 

The FEC general counsel had previously recommended the film should fall under the press exemption. 

Last week, Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said that the press exemption hinges on more than whether a group is owned by a political committee or candidate. She said the FEC must also take into account whether the group was acting as a "press entity" when it distributed its news or commentary. Democrats have previously said worries that traditional news or bloggers would be swept into the agency's crosshairs are overblown. 

In this specific case, the commentary was the Obama film. 

"Press entities do not act as press entities when they distribute millions of free DVDs immediately before an election solely in electoral swing states," she said on April 13.

That is the statement that irked Goodman and caused him to respond Monday. He said the implications of that statement could touch any press entity. 

"There is no ambiguity in the point of this curt statement: all otherwise bona fide press entities are subject to investigation by the federal government through either the Commission (or the Department of Justice) based on nothing more than the means they pursue to market and exhibit their otherwise fully protected content," he shot back. 

For years, Goodman has warned of the threat of creeping FEC regulation of the press online and other places.