Former FEC Chair Goodman Says “Honest Ads Act” Targets American Free Speech, Not Foreign Propaganda

Former FEC Chair and RNLA Board of Governors member Lee Goodman penned a column in The Hill laying bare the inadequacies of the Honest Ads Act pending in Congress. 

Goodman writes that the bill would “severely restrict the First Amendment rights of American citizens and media companies but barely impact foreign meddlers.” 

To address the kind of foreign meddling witnessed in 2016, Goodman recommends that Congress amend the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to apply directly to foreign propagandists like the Internet Research Agency.  The law currently applies only to the U.S.-based agents of foreign principals.  House Democrats are expected to push a version of the Honest Ads Act when Congress returns next week.

Goodman notes that attempts by foreigners to meddle in U.S. politics are not new but that the tools afforded by the internet and social media have made it easier for foreigners to spread their propaganda.  Congress, understandably, feels that it must respond to this threat, but many of the proposals would target Americans exercising their important First Amendment rights of political speech and American media companies, instead of targeting foreign speech:

The first legislative response in Congress was the Honest Ads Act, principally targeting speech by law-abiding Americans and media companies in a clumsy effort to screen a tiny fraction of potential foreign propaganda. The act would require Americans who spend as little as $500 on ads, discussing any political topic, to publicly expose their identities, addresses and detailed information about their audiences. 

The bill suffers from several inescapable flaws. It would apply only to paid ads — but, in 2016, most Russian propaganda was posted on free social media platforms. It would apply only to the largest media platforms — those with more than 50 million unique monthly visitors, which covers Twitter, Facebook and the New York Times but leaves thousands of other platforms viewed by hundreds of millions of Americans open to foreign propaganda. It would be only a matter of time before other highly visited advertising platforms are swept into the law. . . .

The Honest Ads Act would conscript the resources of media companies and foist upon them law enforcement responsibilities that the FBI and other national intelligence agencies failed at in 2016. But here’s the catch: If media companies fail to detect foreigners disguised with false American identities, they will be punished as lawbreakers. They are drafted to be both law enforcers and criminals in one bill. And we now know that Russians effectively assumed false American identities with U.S. bank accounts in 2016, so the burden on media companies will be arduous. 

Most importantly, the bill’s principal casualty will be the free-speech rights of American citizens and media companies. Americans who want to talk about public policy would be exposed, harassed and chilled from speaking freely. A federal court recently ruled an analogous Maryland law likely violates the First Amendment because it forced press platforms like to publish information about its advertisers. 

As Paul Bedard noted in a column quoting Goodman's piece, this legislation is part of a broader movement by Democrats to suppress speech with which they disagree:

First Amendment advocates and conservatives said that is a threat to free speech. They also said it threatens small advertisers in the same way that Democratic presidential candidate Joaquin Castro did when he published the names of President Trump’s supporters. . . .

Goodman told Secrets, “Drudge [Report] is a meaningful metaphor for a political website that runs paid ads about political topics and gets tens of millions of unique visitors. The Honest Ads Act would make those websites legally responsible for collecting personal information about their advertisers and publishing that information. If they fail, they go to jail.”

Congress should focus on addressing the actual threats from foreign actors, instead of using foreign meddling as an excuse for targeting Americans for their political speech and media companies for selling space to disseminate Americans' political messages.