A campaign complaint brought against a politically leaning Facebook page was dismissed by the Commissioner of Political Practices in a one-time pardon.
The decision, brought on a complaint filed by state Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, against the Facebook page Vent Missoula, came Tuesday and dismissed Bennett’s assertion that boosted posts from the page made it an “incidental committee” for a candidate.
“The page administrators acted alone when posting content, exercising their First Amendment right to express themselves,” Commissioner Jeff Mangan wrote in his decision.
Bennett argued Vent Missoula — a public Facebook group whose posts largely comprise negative sentiments about Missoula Mayor Jon Engen (who recently won re-election) and complaints about City Council decisions — became part of mayoral candidate Lisa Triepke’s campaign incidentally, by making expenditures in the form of boosted Facebook posts.
Mangan found that none of the 17 boosted posts included any support or opposition of a specific candidate, although six of them mentioned candidates by name or likeness, which qualified as electioneering.
Also, because there was only ever one administrator of the page at a time, Mangan said it legally can’t be a political committee, which requires two or more people organize to support a campaign.
Mangan noted during this year’s election he’s seen a much higher rate of complaints related to social media posts, along with a high number of misattributed electioneering and paid election posts on social media.
“The Commissioner hereby excuses (dismisses) Brendon Naasz and Tyler Theisen from a campaign practice violation,” Mangan wrote. “This dismissal is based on the principle of excusable neglect, given the first-time nature of this determination and the likelihood that there are other individuals, candidates and committees in a similarly deficient reporting status.”
Mangan added excusable neglect won’t be applied to such cases in the future.
In a letter to the editor published soon after Bennett filed his complaint, Theisen defended his right to publicly express his political beliefs and lamented the pressure the investigation brought on him.
“No public official has the right to subject my wife and I to the stress, trauma and embarrassment of being hauled into an investigation by an agency whose purpose is to regulate politicians, lobbyists and political committees,” Theisen wrote.
There have been no administrator posts on Vent Missoula since the COPP investigation began.