Some types of Web links break the law

Oregon legislators discover that linking to nongovernment sites violates state laws

Oregon lawmakers had their individual Web sites shut down for a week after an inquiry into whether linking to nongovernment sites violated ethics and election statutes. The Web sites went dark March 23, but state officials said they expected the pages to be back online by the end of last week.

Dave Henderson, legislative administrator of the state’s Legislative Administration Committee, said lawmakers had been adding a growing number of links to external Web sites that had nothing to do with government. A 5-year-old state policy allows House and Senate legislators to link only to government sites and newspaper articles.

“We did allow members to put in links that did not necessarily conform” to that policy, including local chambers of commerce and tourism sites, Henderson said. “We finally requested the opinion from legislative counsel. That’s when we got the opinion that says anything other than government sites has the potential to be in violation.”

A state lawmaker, for example, whose Web site links to the site of a local Boy Scouts of America chapter might be violating ethics laws if the group employs the lawmaker’s wife.

A legislator whose site has a link to a local environmental group that is sponsoring a ballot measure might be violating election laws because state funds cannot support or oppose candidates or ballot measures, Henderson said.

Pam Greenberg, a program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said state legislatures’ policies concerning links to external Web sites vary greatly.

“Web pages change constantly, and legislative Web sites are no exception,” Greenberg said. No uniform policy or standard regarding links to external sites exists among states, she said. “Legislatures often revisit their policies to make sure that Web sites provide information that is useful, relevant and appropriate,” she added.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s policy permits lawmakers to have one link on their NCGA profile sites to an external Web site that the lawmaker maintains.

“The opening screen of the member-maintained Web site shall be constituent service-oriented and not of a partisan or campaign nature,” the policy states. “When a site visitor accesses a link to an outside Web site, a notice of leaving the NCGA Web site is required.”

In Wisconsin, policies on links permit members to add links for their individual home pages and news page to sites maintained by and for government agencies. The state does not permit any other links.

Jon Brandt, the U.S. House Administration Committee’s communications director, said similar policies exist for the House. Its guidelines prohibit direct links to Web sites created or operated by a campaign or campaign-related entity, including political parties and campaign committees.

Brandt said he is unaware of any violations. “Occasionally, you’ll see something that might creep up, but it’s usually unintentional,” he said. “The [member’s] office might have a new press secretary or someone doing their Web work who [isn’t] fully aware of what the guidelines are.”

If violations occur, the House Ethics Committee is responsible for enforcement.

Lawmakers must be mindful of Web linksLike their state counterparts, Capitol Hill lawmakers must follow certain guidelines when linking to external Web sites from their Web pages.

Members of the House, for example, “may not be directly linked or refer to Web sites created or operated by a campaign or any campaign-related entity including political parties and campaign committees,” according to House guidelines.

Senate guidelines are similar. They prohibit posting or linking to matter that solicits political support or mentions Senators or employees as candidates for political office. The guidelines also forbid links to sites that are personal and unrelated to the official business activities of a lawmaker and sites that solicit funds or are used for promotion.

In addition, the Senate guidelines state that a senator’s home page cannot be referred to or linked to from another member’s site or e-mail address without authorization from that member. Any links to information not located on a Senate server must be identified as a link to a non-Senate entity.

— Dibya Sarkar

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