Analysis: “Honest Ads Act” Targets Americans, not Foreign Actors

Alexandria, VA –  The Institute for Free Speech today released an analysis of the “Honest Ads Act” (S. 1989) that says the bill would impose broad-based regulations on the political speech of Americans and do almost nothing to regulate foreign interference in elections.

To read the analysis, click here, or go to: http://www.ifs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/2017-11-01_Legislative-Brief_Federal_S-1989_Honest-Ads-Act.pdf.

“Legislation that responds to foreign meddling by regulating the speech of Americans will not limit foreign influence in American political campaigns. Worse, it will impede the ability of Americans to use their own speech to call out and expose ‘fake news’ and propaganda,” said Eric Wang, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Free Speech.

Among other outcomes, Wang’s analysis finds that the “Honest Ads Act” would:

  • Regulate the 99.99% of online political ads purchased by Americans in order to address the less-than 0.01% purchased by foreigners.
  • Expand the universe of regulated online political speech (by Americans) beyond paid advertising to include, apparently, communications on groups’ or individuals’ own websites and e-mail messages.Specifically, the bill would subject these communications to the Federal Election Commission’s (“FEC”) burdensome disclaimer and reporting requirements.

    As a result, speakers would be susceptible to politically motivated complaints, investigations, and legal liability if they are unable to correctly discern whether and how they are regulated under these complex laws. These costs would negate many of the Internet’s benefits in enabling low-cost, grassroots campaigns to effect political and social change.

  • Regulate speech (by Americans) about legislative issues by expanding the definition of “electioneering communications” – historically limited to large-scale TV and radio campaigns targeted to the electorate in a campaign for office – to include online advertising, even if the ads are not targeted in any way at the relevant electorate.
  • Impose what is effectively a new public reporting requirement on (American) sponsors of online issue ads by expanding the “public file” requirement for broadcast, cable, and satellite media ads to many online platforms. Both advertisers and online platforms would be liable for providing and maintaining the information required to be kept in these files, which would also increase the costs of online advertising, especially for low-cost grassroots movements.

    The “public file” also may subject (American) organizers of contentious but important political causes like “Black Lives Matter” and the Tea Party to harassment by opponents monitoring the content, distribution, and sponsorship of their activities.

  • Impose new legal liability on broadcast, cable, satellite, and Internet media platforms if they allow political advertising by prohibited speakers to slip through, thereby driving up the costs of political advertising, especially for online ads where compliance costs are relatively high.
  • Impose inflexible disclaimer requirements on online ads that may make many forms of small, popular, and cost-effective ads off-limits for (American) political advertisers.
  • Inexplicably weaken the ability of state and local party committees to involve volunteers and distribute materials to support their candidates, thereby furthering the decline of political parties that are already reeling from passage of the “Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act” of 2002.

The “Honest Ads Act” (S. 1989) was introduced and sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). It is co-sponsored by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ). It is currently with the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.