Siding with The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and other Maryland-area newspapers, a federal judge has partially blocked a new electioneering law in the state that requires online publishers to post information about political ad buys.
The "Online Electioneering and Transparency Act," which took effect July 1, applies to online news sites, social media services and other platforms with more than 100,000 unique monthly users. The measure requires those platforms to post -- on their own websites -- information about political ad buys, and to make records available to the state election board. Maryland passed the law in response to revelations that Russian operatives purchased ads on Google, Twitter and Facebook, in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Post and other papers challenged the law last year, arguing that several of its provisions violated the First Amendment, including the provision compelling news organizations to post information about political ad purchases and to make records available to state inspectors.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Grimm in Maryland on Thursday blocked the state from enforcing those portions of the law against news organizations.
“There is simply no way the state can show its law is the least restrictive means of achieving its compelling interest in deterring or exposing foreign attempts to meddle in its elections,” Grimm wrote in a 50-page ruling.
Grimm wrote it was “evident” that campaign finance disclosure laws imposing burdens on the media implicate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press. He added that laws compelling publishers to post information on their own sites are particularly problematic, describing them as “treading on their First Amendment-protected interest in controlling the content of their publications.”
He also said the statute was too broad, because it applies not only to the large social media platforms on which the Kremlin previously purchased ads, but also to news sites that weren't targeted by foreign operatives in the past.
“The state has not been able to identify so much as a single foreign-sourced paid political ad that ran on a news site, be it in 2016 or at any other time,” Grimm wrote.