The Web site began as a sort of Internet boutique for like-minded conservatives and libertarians, suspicious of federal power and angry at President Bill Clinton.
Started in 1997 by a reclusive California conservative, freerepublic.com saw its membership blossom with Clinton's impeachment and the election of George W. Bush. Attention to the site reached a zenith last fall, when a "freeper" -- the group's moniker for its bloggers -- first discussed flaws in documents CBS News used in a report critical of Bush's National Guard service.
CBS later fired three executives and a producer over their work on the National Guard story. And conservative commentators and others hailed the growing community of Internet bloggers -- and Free Republic in particular -- for impelling mainstream media organizations to focus on doubts about the documents.
The Web site is once again at the center of a political scandal -- but this time, a Republican administration is the target. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on Tuesday accepted the resignation of longtime aide Joseph Steffen for postings and chat room e-mails on Free Republic that discussed the intentional spread of rumors about Baltimore's Democratic mayor, Martin O'Malley.
With Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis pushing for a broad investigation, Free Republic is once again drawing attention and is prompting questions about the role of political Web sites, which often traffic in anonymous assertions and rumor.
The blogosphere "is the international waters of the Internet age -- a lawless area where anything goes," said Matthew Felling, media director for the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Sometimes that means information the quote-unquote mainstream media are keeping you from, and sometimes that means rumors the mainstream media responsibly ignores."
The Free Republic Web site, which group spokesman Kristinn Taylor said has 170,000 registered accounts, is unadorned with advertising and is regularly updated with news items taken from mainstream publications and other sources.
The Washington Post in 1998 sued Free Republic for copyright infringement, alleging that the site improperly used entire articles from washingtonpost.com. The Web site now posts only the first several paragraphs from Post articles, along with Internet links.
But many users are drawn by its Web log, which allows a running commentary on the news -- and gossip -- of the day. One of the great allures, and great risks, of posting comments is the anonymity it provides.
But as Steffen learned this week, the anonymity isn't guaranteed.