The Republican National Committee (RNC) filed a complaint against Twitter on Friday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging the social media company’s recent moderation efforts blocking access to an unflattering report about Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son qualifies as an unlawful contribution to the former vice president’s campaign.
The complaint—originally obtained by Fox News—says the RNC “believes that Twitter has violated [federal campaign finance law] and the Commission’s Regulations by making corporate in-kind contributions to Biden for President.”
Twitter, the GOP filing alleges, “is a partisan actor, run by partisan Democrats” and is “using its corporate resources to provide active support for Joe Biden’s campaign in violation of federal law.”
The complaint also asks the FEC to “conduct an immediate investigation” into Twitter’s allegedly “illegal in-kind contributions to the Biden campaign” and to “impose the maximum penalty allowed under the law.”
Legal experts didn’t lend much credence to the Republican Party’s claims against the micro-blogging website.
“One word: yawn,” national security attorney Bradley P. Moss told Law&Crime.
Campaign finance reform organization Issue One’s Legislative and Programs Counsel Danielle Caputo told Law&Crime the RNC’s legal claim was “frivolous.”
“The FEC defines in-kind contributions as ‘[g]oods or services offered free or at less than the usual charge,'” she explained. “Twitter, as far as I’m aware, does not charge individuals to remove content from their site. Additionally, the article was removed because of their hacked material policy, which existed prior to the Hunter Biden story being published.”
What the FEC says about in-kind contributions:
An in-kind contribution is a non-monetary contribution. Goods or services offered free or at less than the usual charge result in an in-kind contribution. Similarly, when a person or entity pays for services on the committee’s behalf, the payment is an in-kind contribution. An expenditure made by any person or entity in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate’s campaign is also considered an in-kind contribution to the candidate.
The value of an in-kind contribution—the usual and normal charge—counts against the contribution limit as a gift of money does. Additionally, like any other contribution, in-kind contributions count against the contributor’s limit for the next election, unless they are otherwise designated.
Common Cause campaign finance expert Paul Seamus Ryan agreed that the “complaint seems frivolous.”
“While I’m encouraged to see the RNC take such broad (and uncharacteristic for the RNC) view of what constitutes an in-kind contribution under federal campaign finance law, the complaint is thin on legal analysis and fails to allege the facts necessary to find the violation the RNC complains occurred,” he said in an email.
Ryan also focused on the monetary aspect (or lack thereof):
In order for there to be an illegal in-kind contribution here, Twitter would need to be spending money in cooperation or consultation with the Biden campaign, or at the request or suggestion of the Biden campaign (i.e., in “coordination” with the Biden campaign under 11 CFR 109.20), for the purpose of influencing the election. The RNC fails to allege with any specificity what Twitter is spending money on (i.e., what’s the “expenditure”) and how Twitter is coordinating this spending with the Biden campaign (i.e., what’s the “coordination” that turns the expenditure into an in-kind contribution).
Actual instances of unlawful in-kind contributions cited by Ryan include the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal by then-candidate Donald Trump funneled through Michael Cohen during the final days of the 2016 presidential election. The campaign finance expert also cited a negative example from the same election.
“I approach this work and issue in a nonpartisan fashion,” Ryan said. “[T]he last complaint I worked on before moving from the Campaign Legal Center to Common Cause in 2016 alleged illegal in-kind contributions from David Brock’s super PAC Correct the Record to the 2016 Clinton campaign. Two Republican members of the FEC blocked FEC enforcement on this complaint against Clinton—a position illustrative of the Republican Party’s typically-narrow view of what constitutes illegal in-kind contributions under federal law.”
Accusing Twitter of providing in-kind contributions to their opponents has become something of a Republican Party pastime as of late.
In May, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) filed an FEC complaint against Twitter based on a fact-check that was appended to one of President Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting.
The social media company’s intervention into direct moderation of the 45th president was controversial at the time–the action being both praised and reviled by an array of commentators partisan and otherwise.
“By opining on the content of the President’s tweets, Twitter is injecting its own editorial opinions in an attempt to lower the credibility to the President,” the complaint alleged–saying that the fact check was an attempt to influence “the 2020 presidential elections by making an in-kind contribution to President Trump’s political opponents” including the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
[image via Scott Olson/Getty Images]
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