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Maryland settles challenge over law regulating online campaign ads

The Maryland Board of Public Works will consider whether to approve paying $400,000 to several newspapers to settle a lawsuit over a law that would have further regulated online campaign ads.
The Maryland Board of Public Works will consider whether to approve paying $400,000 to several newspapers to settle a lawsuit over a law that would have further regulated online campaign ads. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

The Maryland state government agreed to pay $400,000 to several newspapers to settle a lawsuit challenging a law that would have required the papers to collect and share information about political advertisers.

The state Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to approve the settlement without discussion.

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The Baltimore Sun, several other newspapers and the region’s press association sued in 2018 to block a law passed earlier that year that required companies that are paid to run online campaign ads to collect information about the advertisers and turn it over to state elections officials.

The goal was to prevent foreign interference in elections, following evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election through social media and other means.

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The newspapers argued that while the goal may be compelling, the law was overly broad, put a burden on Maryland companies and infringed on free speech and other Constitutional rights.

Further, the newspapers’ lawyers argued that “there is no evidence that any newspaper website in Maryland unwittingly published advertising surreptitiously placed by foreign nationals to disrupt the 2016 election.”

The newspapers noted that even internet giant Google decided to stop accepting political ads in Maryland due to the new law.

Gov. Larry Hogan also raised concerns about the law. He allowed it to become law without his signature in 2018 and noted that he expected a legal challenge.

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“I cannot sign a piece of legislation that could allow the government to coerce news outlets protected by the First Amendment to publish certain material,” Hogan wrote at the time. “A number of alternative approaches were recommended — yet unfortunately rejected — that would have achieved the same ends of this bill while ensuring the freedom of the press enshrined in the Constitution remains intact.”

The newspapers filed suit in federal court August 2018 and won a preliminary injunction in January 2019 that prevented the state from enforcing key parts of the law.

The state appealed, but a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the injunction last December.

The money will come from the budget of the Maryland State Board of Elections, which is the agency that the newspapers sued.

The plaintiffs in the case are The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Capital, The Carroll County Times, The Cumberland Times-News, The Frederick News-Post, The Hagerstown Herald Mail, The Star Democrat in Easton, The Cecil Whig, The Maryland Independent in Charles County and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association.

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