Judge bars en­force­ment of on­line po­lit­i­cal ad law

The Wash­ing­ton Post and other me­dia out­lets with an on­line pres­ence in Mary­land filed a fed­eral law­suit last year to block por­tions of the law from be­ing en­forced against on­line pub­lish­ers.

Sunday Star - - LOCAL - By BRIAN WITTE

Parts of a Mary­land law aimed at stop­ping for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in lo­cal elec­tions on so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as Face­book ap­pear to en­croach on the First Amend­ment, a fed­eral judge has ruled.

The law re­quires cer­tain me­dia web­sites to self-pub­lish in­for­ma­tion about the po­lit­i­cal ads they run on­line and keep records of them for state in­spec­tion. U.S. Dis­trict Judge Paul Grimm granted a pre­lim­i­nary in­junc­tion Thurs­day to pre­vent the state from en­forc­ing those pro­vi­sions against me­dia un­til the case is re­solved.

“The 2016 elec­tion ex­posed alarm­ing new vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in this coun­try’s demo­cratic process,” Grimm wrote. “While there is no deny­ing that states have a strong in­ter­est in coun­ter­ing newly emerg­ing threats to their elec­tions, the ap­proaches they choose to take must not en­croach on First Amend­ment free­doms that are the hall­mark of our na­tion. Mary­land’s statute ap­pears to over­step these bounds.” The Wash­ing­ton Post and other me­dia out­lets with an on­line pres­ence in Mary­land filed a fed­eral law­suit last year to block por­tions of the law from be­ing en­forced against on­line pub­lish­ers.

Grimm’s or­der notes that the Mary­land statute is among sev­eral states’ re­sponses to rev­e­la­tions that Rus­sia ex­ploited so­cial me­dia in an ef­fort to sway pub­lic opin­ion ahead of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. New York and Wash­ing­ton also up­dated elec­tion trans­parency in a sim­i­lar fash­ion.

Grimm wrote that while he has “no cause to block its en­force­ment whole­sale,” the plain­tiffs per­suaded him that both the pub­li­ca­tion re­quire­ment and state in­spec­tion re­quire­ment in the Mary­land law are “most likely un­con­sti­tu­tional as it ap­plies to these plain­tiffs.”

Grimm wrote that he will sched­ule a call with at­tor­neys in the case be­fore de­ter­min­ing what fur­ther pro­ceed­ings are needed.

The law re­quires on­line plat­forms to cre­ate a data­base iden­ti­fy­ing the pur­chasers of on­line ads in state and lo­cal elec­tions and how much they spend. Mary­land’s law, crafted to catch ads dis­played in smaller state and lo­cal elec­tions, ap­plies to dig­i­tal plat­forms with 100,000 unique monthly vis­i­tors.

Grimm noted that Mary­land’s thresh­old of 100,000 vis­i­tors made the law very broad com­pared to New York’s law, which has a thresh­old of at least 70 mil­lion vis­i­tors. Grimm wrote that Mary­land’s law “casts a wide net” that is broad enough to cover not only Face­book and other so­cial me­dia gi­ants that for­eign op­er­a­tors are known to have ex­ploited, but many news sites as well, “in­clud­ing smaller, re­gional sites.”

“It seems un­likely that Mary­land will be able to show that a less ex­pan­sive def­i­ni­tion of ‘on­line plat­form’ would de­tract in any way from the Act’s goal of neu­tral­iz­ing for­eign in­flu­ence in the state’s elec­tions,” Grimm wrote.

Grimm also found that the Mary­land law doesn’t ap­pear “to rem­edy the harms that in­spired its en­act­ment,” be­cause its pub­li­ca­tion and state in­spec­tion re­quire­ments “over­shoot their tar­get by a wide mar­gin.”

“The State has not per­suaded me that the Act’s pub­li­ca­tion and state in­spec­tion re­quire­ments are sub­stan­tially re­lated to its aims,” Grimm wrote. “The method it has cho­sen to rem­edy an ad­mit­tedly im­por­tant state in­ter­est is ill suited to the task and threat­ens in the process to im­pose sub­stan­tial bur­dens on Plain­tiffs’ First Amend­ment-pro­tected rights of free speech and a free press.”

The law took ef­fect July 1. The Mary­land State Board of Elec­tions has sub­poena power un­der the law to find out how many Mary­land vot­ers are tar­geted on so­cial me­dia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.