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Internet Name-Switching Tactic Returns in 8th District Race

By Samson Habte
Capital News Service
Friday, Oct. 8, 2004

WASHINGTON - Voters who log on to www.vanhollen2004.com are greeted by a picture of a man in a giant chicken suit holding a sign that mocks Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, for his unwillingness to debate.

At www.vanhollen2004.org, visitors are told that the freshman legislator "wants the U.S. to be like France."

At both sites, if they read the fine print, voters are told that they are not on Van Hollen's official campaign Web sites -- "just in case you can't tell."

Repeating a tactic he used in the primary, 8th District Republican nominee Chuck Floyd has appropriated Internet domain names that use his opponents' names and posted critical information -- or what one Van Hollen staffer called "baseless lies."

The Floyd campaign said that the new sites were put up because Van Hollen has not accepted repeated offers to debate. Van Hollen and Floyd have met at two candidate forums sponsored by community groups, but the Republican is pushing for more encounters and different formats.

"We feel that it is important to get information about our opponent out," said David Byrd, a Floyd spokesman.

Van Hollen campaign manager Chuck Westover decried the charges on the Web site as "baseless lies."

"Congressman Van Hollen doesn't stoop to these levels and he thinks the voters of the 8th District are going to reject these tactics," Westover said.

Earlier this year, Floyd's campaign appropriated the name of a primary opponent, Robin Ficker, to set up similarly unflattering sites. The campaign initially denied a connection to the Ficker site switch, until Ficker sued.

Ficker accused Floyd consultant John Tuohy, who registered the Ficker Web site last winter, of "cybersquatting." That practice is illegal if the appropriation of someone else's name on the Internet is done for commercial profit.

But U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams ruled against Ficker in February, saying that the First Amendment right to free speech trumped the relatively weak appropriation concerns.

"The First Amendment protection of speech is a core value of our democracy and this court recognizes the First Amendment's particularly important role in political campaigns," Williams wrote in his decision.

All the faux Van Hollen sites carry disclaimers noting that they are paid for by the Floyd for Congress Committee, a move aimed at insulating the Floyd campaign from legal action for cybersquatting.

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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