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House Leadership Moves to Silence Twittering Members

Posted by Andrew on July 8, 2008

I’ve been following and interacting with two members of the US House of Representatives, John Culberson, Republican from Texas, and Tim Ryan, Democrat from Ohio. It has been great and refreshing to have this direct line of communication with these two Members of Congress and gain insights into what’s happening on Capitol Hill, often a black hole of mystery unless it’s your full time job to know what’s going on.

Rep. Culberson just sent a series of messages on Twitter indicating that the Democratic House Leadership is requiring that he submit each message for approval prior to posting. This move apparently invokes a little-known broader regulation that all Member communications posted on any public social networking site receive prior approval.

While I’m not even in a position to shed light on the Constitutionality of such a regulation, it surely flies in the face of government openness and transparency? What is the Democratic leadership trying to hide or keep from the public? The beauty of Twitter and similar platforms is that they are open communications for public consumption. I’ll spare any conjecture regarding potential motives behind such a move, political or not.

The Sunlight Foundation should explore this and weigh in to see if this is an attempt to silence public communication from our elected representatives in government.

UPDATE: Rep. Culberson got some clarity. Time to end centralized control and censorship of communications from government and elected officials. Thoughts?

Here’s Rep Capuano’s letter proposing changes. I’m a dolt…I can’t make heads or tails of which way this letter is going.

UPDATE #2: George Donnelly has a great list of articles and posts about this issue. Aaron Brazell has some comprehensive coverage of the issue.

Update #4: A site has been launched: LetOurCongressTweet.org – produced by The Sunlight Foundation. Way to go!

UPDATE #3: Boehner Gets Involved

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 9, 2008

CONTACTS: Michael Steel, Kevin Smith, Steve Forde – (202) 225-4000

Boehner Urges Speaker Pelosi to Shut Down Democrats’ Proposed Censorship
of the Internet

House GOP Leader Warns: New “YouTube” Rule Proposed by
Democratic-Controlled House Administration Committee “Would Amount to
New Government Censorship of the Internet”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) today
wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), urging her to join him in opposing
a new rule proposed by the Democratic leadership of the House
Administration Committee that would require outside websites such as
YouTube to comply with House regulations before Members of Congress
could post videos on them. Under the proposal, the House Administration
Committee would develop a list of “approved” websites, and Members of
Congress would be restricted to only publishing content using these
sites. Calling it “new government censorship of the Internet,” Boehner
asked Speaker Pelosi to join him in opposing the proposed rule.

“The Internet is a powerful tool for promoting openness and transparency
in government,” Boehner wrote. “It has given individual Americans an
unprecedented window into the daily actions and policy debates of their
Congress. The result has increasingly been a better informed electorate
– better equipped with real-time information about what is happening in
their government, and more empowered to hold their leaders accountable.”

Highlighting the Democratic-controlled House Administration Committee’s
attempts to effectively shut down the free flow of information on the
Internet between Members of Congress and the American people, Boehner
assailed the proposed rule.

“If this proposed rule were to be implemented, Americans who currently
use free websites such as YouTube to obtain uncensored daily information
on congressional policy debates would suddenly be forced to visit
websites ‘approved’ by the House Administration Committee in order to
continue getting such information,” explained Boehner. “This would
amount to new government censorship of the Internet, by a panel of
federal officials that is neither neutral nor independent.”

Urging Speaker Pelosi to join him in opposing the Democratic-controlled
House Administration Committee’s planned actions, Boehner concluded,
“Millions of Americans get information about what is happening in their
government through the Internet and free websites like YouTube. I am
writing to seek your assurance that the Democratic majority does not
intend to deprive them of this right, and to request that you join me in
opposing the proposed new rules.”

Boehner’s full letter to Pelosi follows and is available by clicking
here
.

July 9, 2008

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House
H-232, U.S. Capitol
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Speaker Pelosi:

The Internet is a powerful tool for promoting openness and transparency
in government. It has given individual Americans an unprecedented
window into the daily actions and policy debates of their Congress. The
result has increasingly been a better informed electorate – better
equipped with real-time information about what is happening in their
government, and more empowered to hold their leaders accountable.

It has come to my attention that the Democratic-controlled Committee on
House Administration, at the recommendation of the Democratic chairman
of the Commission on Mailing Standards (Franking Commission), is
considering the adoption of new congressional rules that would
effectively shut down what has emerged as a free and helpfully
uncensored pipeline of real-time information between the American people
and their elected leaders. Specifically, the Committee is considering
the adoption of new rules that would require outside websites such as
YouTube to comply with House regulations before Members of Congress
could post videos on them. Under the proposal, the House Administration
Committee would develop a list of “approved” websites, and Members of
Congress would be restricted to only publishing content using these
sites.

If this proposed rule were to be implemented, Americans who currently
use free websites such as YouTube to obtain uncensored daily information
on congressional policy debates would suddenly be forced to visit
websites “approved” by the House Administration Committee in order to
continue getting such information. This would amount to new government
censorship of the Internet, by a panel of federal officials that is
neither neutral nor independent.

I believe Members of Congress should have the ability to choose
whichever service they believe will best assist in communicating with
their constituents, and not be limited to only services “approved” by
the House Administration Committee or any other government entity. We
must encourage, not restrict, the free and open flow of uncensored
information between the American people and their elected leaders over
the Internet.

Members should be allowed to use technologies, websites, and services
(paid or unpaid) to communicate with their constituents via text, video,
or audio, so long as the content posted by the Member complies with
House rules and Franking content regulations. Members should be allowed
to use free communications and networking services so long as those
services are available on the same terms and conditions available to
others. This view has been expressed formally to the Democratic
Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, Rep. Robert Brady, by
the Committee’s senior Republican member, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), and
by Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Tom Price (R-GA).

Millions of Americans get information about what is happening in their
government through the Internet and free websites like YouTube. I am
writing to seek your assurance that the Democratic majority does not
intend to deprive them of this right, and to request that you join me in
opposing the proposed new rules.

Sincerely,

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH)
House Republican Leader

#####

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16 Responses to “House Leadership Moves to Silence Twittering Members”

  1. Yeah, I’m not sure what Culberson’s talking about just yet. So far, the only “evidence” I have seen that the House Dems are going to lock down Twitter are tweets from Culberson saying so. Forgive me if I don’t trust politicians of his ilk right now (“Obama changes position on Iraq.”) Particularly because he says “Here is Dem letter asking for a rule req prior approval for all posts on Twitter etc:” and then links to a letter that is almost completely unrelated! WTF? He links to the Capuano letter which says nothing about “prior approval” nor any social network. The Capuano letter is actually one urging the outdated House rules to adapt and start using MORE technology, not less! And it’s specifically addressing hosting video content externally, not text posts like Twitter. Perhaps it would be problematic for Qik videos, but this whole flap started off with “ZOMG the Dems are in mah blackberry eating mah twitterz!” And all we have are his tweets for it. @MichaelTurk asks why aren’t any lefty-tweeps up in arms just yet, but maybe we’re just waiting on, I dunno, facts.

  2. Andrew said

    @Shelbinator: Thanks…thoughtful reply, and I do appreciate the notion of taking a guarded approach to learn more about what’s going on. I am aware of antiquated House rules regulating Member communications/posts on public social networking sites. Personally I think it’s time to do away with all of them. The Capuano letter still refers to new ways to regulate…but again, I’m a dolt when it comes to bureaucro-speak. We’ll see…I think this is the type of issue that isn’t left, right, Dem or GOP. If silencing or over-regulating speech is what we have here, I hope all sides can come together and put an end to rules that can be, at best, silly, and at worst, tyrannical (I know, it’s hard to think about twitter and tyranny in the same sentence, but Twitter is just a tool for speech…a piece of paper, right?)

  3. whitneymcn said

    I’m not clear on what in Capuano’s letter is being taken as a statement that communication would need to be approved before posting — could you pull a quote?

    The letter proposes changes to existing legistation that currently prohibits members of Congress from posting official content outside the House.gov domain (and for what it’s worth the letter only specifically addresses videos). Capuano acknowledges that this is a problem, and proposes establishing approved sites for posting video content, not requiring approval of specific video content.

    A couple of relevant quotes from the linked letter from Capuano below.

    Regarding the approval of sites for posting:

    As you are aware, current CHA regulations have been interpreted to prohibit Members from posting official content outside of the House.gov domain. Unfortunately, many Members who wish to display video on their websites have found that the existing tools within the House to do so are not use-friendly or efficient, and that in addition, server storage space within the House is currently insufficient to meet the growing demand for video.
    […]
    This would allow a Member to post video material on a qualifying external website and then embed the video on his or her Member site from this external site.

    Regarding the regulations governing the content of communications:

    Please note that nothing in these recommendations should be construed as a recommendation to change the current House rules and regulations governing the content of official communications.

  4. […] House Leadership Moves to Silence Twittering Members These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  5. mammaloves said

    Ohh, that is interesting. I think I need to read the local paper a bit more often. I miss everything.

  6. This analysis suggests all squawk, no poop. Jerk.

    http://techdirt.com/articles/20080708/1602521624.shtml

  7. Heres how the House leadership will use this rule to control where and what I say and even exercise influence over your website/blog etc

    If the Ds rule change were in effect today, before I could post this, your website/blog would have to be preapproved as complying with House rules, my post would require a disclaimer that it was “produced by a House office for official purposes,” and the CONTENT of my post would have to be preapproved by the House Franking Committee as complying with “existing content rules and regulations.”

    This is a violation of your First Amendment rights and mine, and is an outrageous attempt by House leadership to stifle and control you and me. If Rs were in charge I would be just as outraged – forget the party label – I do not want the federal gov’t/House of Representatives certifying your website or the content of my posts. I am writing this post personally, in my official capacity, so it would fall precisely under their new rule and you and I would both be in violation unless we subjected ourselves and my words to their prior approval/editing.

    I am always ready to admit I am wrong but I am an attorney and this is what the letter means.

    This is a story worth following because I am going to continue to vigorously exercise my First Amendment rights on every social media outlet I can reach. It is my right as an American and my duty as a representative.

    thanks

    John Culberson

  8. Matt said

    Rep. Culberson,

    I guess I don’t see where the letter says that your content needs to be approved? Can you explain that part for us?
    I do see a problem with them pre-approving what websites you’re allowed to publish content/leave comments on though. There really should be no regulation of your speech whatsoever.

  9. Techdirt got it wrong. The letter wants to tighten rules, and all communications from a Congressperson – except personal and campaign-related, are considered official.

  10. […] internet is next… House Leadership Moves to Silence Twittering Members The Batterista Blog Ive been following and interacting with two members of the US House of Representatives, John […]

  11. @Matt,

    As I understand it there is nothing in the discussion of new or amended rules that would discuss content. The current rules, however, already provide that content is to be approved. I think they also technically require that the approved content be on/in House-operated forums. The objection, then, of the Members (who certainly can speak for themselves and can correct me if I am wrong about their objection) is that the proposal to “expand” the list of approved sites is narrow in that it includes such a short list (or that it even includes some type of exclusive list at all) AND that it does not address the current limitation on content.

    Just my impression.

    Keep fighting Rep. Culberson!

  12. sorry – forgot an all-important comma there.

    That is to read, “Keep fighting, Rep. Culberson!” and is not intended to be a comment of support for Rep. Pelosi and others who really have been fighting the Rep.

    🙂

  13. Andrew said

    Patrick: A very lawyerly clarification! 🙂

    Thanks for the comment. The legalese nature of the statements going back and forth can really muck up the issue. To me, the real issue is whether or not we’re going to permit Members of Congress to post video, blogs, etc. The discussion about “opening” it up a bit is false…they’re just updating and keeping the existing regulations, but the regulations are still there. I am disappointed that this has been turned into a partisan issue, leading many to defend Capuano’s position when they should be supporting Culberson’s position, regardless of partisan statements made on either side.

    When the conversation involves which sites are ok and which aren’t, we’re off message.

  14. intiptmuh said

    Thanks !

  15. […] House Leadership Moves to Silence Twittering Members. C.f. Let Our Congress Tweet and Is the House going to limit the free speech of its own members? […]

  16. Anonymous said

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