Having spent a good chunk of time over the past three years calling for state and national governments to do more to protect our election process, it will no doubt strike some readers as disingenuous to complain about a law that attempts to do just that.

But here goes.

The Maryland General Assembly has passed a law requiring newspapers to collect and publish information about who pays for online political ads. It also requires us to keep records of the ads for inspection by the state Board of Elections.

The goal is to prevent foreign interference in our local elections, and we applaud the good intentions. It is the execution that we take issue with.

Half a dozen newspapers, including the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, of which The Frederick News-Post is a member, have filed a lawsuit in federal court asserting the statute violates the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech and a free press.

In January, U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm agreed that parts of the law appear to encroach on the First Amendment. He granted a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from enforcing those provisions. The case was argued before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently, and a decision is expected in the next several months.

The law would require any online advertising platform, including a newspaper’s website, to create a database identifying the purchasers of online political ads and how much they spend.

Because lawmakers wanted to include ads in state and local elections, they wrote it to apply to any digital platforms with 100,000 or more monthly U.S. visitors. That scoops up a lot of smaller newspaper websites.

New York passed a similar law, but it applies only to digital platforms with at least 70 million monthly visitors, such as Facebook, Google and other giants. Those were the kind of sites that were exploited by Russian and other foreign disinformation agents during the 2016 election campaign. Washington state and California have also passed updated election transparency laws.

Seth Berlin, our coalition’s lawyer, told the court that the law amounts to the government telling the press what to publish.

The newspapers also told the judge that free postings on social media — not paid political ads on newspaper websites — were the primary means used to try to undermine the 2016 election. The Maryland law will not do anything to prevent that.

“It compels newspapers to publish, regulates far more speech — and speakers — than necessary, and does nothing to combat actual foreign influence in our elections,” Berlin argued.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento told the court:

“These modest burdens do not outweigh the State’s important interests in electoral transparency, deterring corruption, enforcing the substantive requirements of the campaign finance laws, and protecting against foreign meddling in the State’s elections.”

Gov. Larry Hogan allowed the law to take effect without signing it because he, too, had concerns about its constitutionality. He said he supported the law’s goals.

The disagreement over this law pits newspaper companies against many of our traditional allies in advocating for open government, including Common Cause Maryland.

Del. Alonzo Washington, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, is the bill’s lead sponsor. He pointedly criticized newspapers for our opposition.

“This coalition of newspaper and online media outlets, I think it’s concerning that they want more transparency in politics and in government, but when it comes to folks purchasing ads on their websites, they don’t think there’s a need for transparency,” Washington told The Associated Press.

It is somewhat uncomfortable to argue against more transparency in election advertising, but we believe that in this case the law has just gone too far. Maryland lawmakers must walk a very fine line on this issue. Our belief is that they have crossed the line into infringement on press freedoms and must reconsider.

(5) comments

seanjames

this is an incredibly transparent attempt at obfuscation. you claim this is a first amendment infringement without even bothering to *attempt* to explain how

nobody is even preventing you from accepting ads from whomever you'd like, they just expect that you're up front about it. so please explain how is that an infringement on the 1A? what you're really worried about is that this will shine a light on who is truly paying the bills. now, if the public sees where the vast majority of your political ad revenue is coming from (and spoiler alert: it's billionaires and their interests), maybe they'll start to question where your allegiances truly lie. and even worse, it will make their carpet-bombing strategy more obvious and therefore less effective and you might lose some ad revenue.

FCPS-Principal

Collecting data is nothing new or illegal. FB thrives on it.

TomWheatley

Every TV ad and sign on the side of the road has something like "Paid by Authority of the Treasurer of Candidate XYZ" . The actual wording is different, but the gist of it is that you can see who paid for that particular sign or TV ad. Just add the same line in the online ads. Not a biggie.

DickD

If the goal is to stop foreign money, how does that infringe on "free speech" of any U.S. citizen or organization?

MD1756

Did you put the same editorial in all your papers or is the FNP the only paper you own in Maaryland? Sounds like a whining commentary by an owner of multiple papers, not a violation of free speech. You charge for advertisments, so is it really free speech or paid speech? I'm afraid I have to side with the state on this. People have been buying elections for a long time and a little required reporting on you part (isn't that what a paper is supposed to do? Report?) isn't going to ruin your paper. Is the state asking for any information that you don't already collect for accounting purposes? Just report it.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, insights and experiences, not personal attacks. Ad hominem criticisms are not allowed. Focus on ideas instead.
TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
Don't threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
No trolls. Off-topic comments and comments that bait others are not allowed.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
Say it once. No repeat or repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.