Watchdogs Weigh In Against Newspapers In Battle Over Political Ads

Maryland's new online electioneering law is pitting newspapers against the watchdogs 

The "Online Electioneering and Transparency Act," which took effect last July 1, requires online news sites, social media services and other platforms with more than 100,000 unique monthly users to post information on their sites about political ads.

Maryland lawmakers passed the measure in response to revelations that Russian operatives purchased ads on the major tech platforms in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and other newspapers sued to block the measure, arguing that it violates the First Amendment by compelling them to post material.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Grimm agreed with the newspapers. He ruled that requiring newspapers to publish specific information infringed on their right to control the content of their publications.

Maryland officials are now asking the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Grimm's ruling. The state is drawing support from the nonprofit watchdogs Common Cause Maryland and Campaign Legal Center, which argue in a recent friend-of-the-court brief that the law actually “advances the First Amendment rights of Maryland citizens” by offering them more information.

“The Act responds to the dramatic migration of political advertising to digital platforms and accounts for unique features that make digital platforms particularly appealing to those seeking to influence voters without detection,” the organizations write. “The Act also facilitates detection and enforcement of other campaign finance violations by ensuring that online platforms preserve information about the digital political ads they disseminate after the ads disappear from their websites.”

The newspapers are expected to respond to the arguments next month.

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