A Political Speech Crackdown

The Honest Ads Act uses Russia as an excuse to stifle American debate.

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Vladimir Putin continues his campaign to sow disorder in the U.S. political system, and Democrats continue to take the bait. Witness the campaign to use Russia’s interference in U.S. elections as a reason to crack down on free speech and press rights.

The political catalyst is the U.S. finding that Russian operatives used social-media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter , to pose as U.S. citizens or organizations in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. Investigators have found that the amount of Russian spending and posts was very small compared to overall campaign spending. But never underestimate the liberal quest for new campaign-finance laws.

In October Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar —joined by Republican speech regulator Sen. John McCain —introduced the Honest Ads Act. The bill would impose new disclaimer and reporting requirements on internet platforms that run paid advertising, from Facebook and Twitter to the online news sites of major newspapers and magazines or the Drudge Report. The disclosure requirements would essentially require digital platforms to publish the name of any American seeking to discuss political subjects through paid ads, a chilling standard.

 

Facebook executives said on Oct. 27, 2017 the social media company will verify political ad buyers, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations.
Facebook executives said on Oct. 27, 2017 the social media company will verify political ad buyers, requiring them to reveal correct names and locations. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The bill would also impose legal liabilities on sites if advertising from prohibited actors slip through. Media outlets and digital platforms could be held civilly or criminally responsible for content on their sites that doesn’t comply with Federal Election Commission legal requirements.

This is a breathtaking new standard and potentially unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which held that the Times was not liable for an advertisement it ran that a politician claimed was libelous. Online platforms would likely respond by restricting the types of political ads they run, diluting their First Amendment rights.

If anyone doubts where Democrats are headed, consider that the FEC’s Republican commissioners recently beat back an attempt to impose new legal liability on newspapers for their political ads. The case involved a 2016 political ad in an Ohio daily newspaper, the Chesterland News, in which a citizen failed to include his name as part of the required FEC disclaimer. 

The commission dropped the complaint against the individual, but Democrat Ellen Weintraub then tried a legal maneuver that would have overturned 35 years of precedent and made the Chesterland News legally responsible for the ad’s noncompliance with FEC rules. Credit goes to former FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman for blowing the whistle.

The response to foreign attempts to manipulate America’s media should focus on bad actors abroad. Social-media platforms did too little to police their content in 2016, and the public outcry is pushing those companies to tighten standards. But the answer isn’t government using Russia as an excuse to strip U.S. citizens of their speech rights.

Appeared in the March 12, 2018, print edition.

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