The Bill of Rights represent a cornerstone of the U.S, Constitution, ensuring all citizens essential rights and privileges. The First Amendment within the Bill of Rights specifically covers rights related to freedom of the press and to free speech. These rights serve to ensure a free exchange of information and points of view among everyone. And in the process, these protections help ensure accountability and transparency. But increasingly, these rights and protections are coming under attack. A perfect example of this is evident with a Florida blogger registration bill, also known as Florida Senate Bill 1316.
Florida Senate Bill 1316 was recently proposed by a state senator who believes bloggers writing about government officials should register. Though the Florida blogger registration bill has not yet passed, it has raised concerns. Some welcome the bill as an effort to promote accountability and transparency in media reporting. Others, however, fear that underlying intentions are to suppress free speech and freedom of the press. At the least, it demonstrates the potential for government overreach, even among advocates who normally advocate minimal government interventions. In this regard, this new development is just another example of the advancing surveillance society in which we live.
“It’s hard to imagine a proposal that would be more violative of the First Amendment. We don’t register journalists. People who write cannot be forced to register.” – Ron Kuby, a First Amendment lawyer in New York
Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
When it comes to Constitutional rights, those related to free speech and freedom of the press are quite sacred. Free press rights state that citizens have the right to publish and disseminate information and opinions without restraint or censorship. Free speech rights protect the right to speak, write and share ideas without punishment by government. The intention of both components of the First Amendment are to ensure a balance of power between the government and the people. By ensuring that the public has a voice free of oppression, constructive debate, accountability, and transparency can be better encouraged. These are precisely the rights that many believe Florida Senate Bill 1316 could potentially violate.
The issue regarding the Florida blogger registration bill and the First Amendment is not the registration itself. Notably, requiring bloggers to register does not prevent them from writing, publishing and sharing ideas. But registration over specific political content and the repercussions if they fail to register does introduce restraints and punishments. Likewise, requiring an individual to register in the first place for an inherent Constitutional right makes little sense. These are the aspects of Florida Senate Bill 1316 that will result in legal challenges should it pass. And these are the components that have heightened concerns about government control over the media.
Details of Florida Senate Bill 1316
Florida Senator Jason Brodeur, a Republican from the Lake Mary region, originally proposed Florida Senate Bill 1316. This “Information Dissemination” bill would require any blogger who writes about any state legislative or executive political official to register. The registration would occur through the Florida Office of legislative Services or the Florida Commission on Ethics. The Florida blogger registration bill also states bloggers must register within five days of any such content being published. Then, they must continue to submit monthly reports if their published written political content continued. These criteria of the bill alone introduce notable inconveniences that could certainly be considered punishment and restraint.
The registration for writing the targeted content has attracted many opponents to Florida Senate Bill 1316. However, additional details of the Florida blogger registration bill extend beyond this. Should a blogger fail to register, they may be subject to fines up to $2,500 per published report. Note that this is per report and not for a failure to register alone. In addition, late reports would be fined at $25 for each day delinquent. These fines would then be collected and placed within lobby registration trust funds of the legislative and executive branches. Thus, not only is this a means for state representatives to gain revenues. The bill also discourages media content that might be unfavorable to their reputations and public approval.
“…[I]f this bill were to become law, blogs in Florida would face more state regulations than assault rifles.” Steve Benen, MSNBC
An Alternative Perspective of the Bill
Not everyone is opposed to Florida Senate Bill 1316 as many welcome some degree of media accountability. Regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, there is agreement that disinformation campaigns are common today. Biased content that cites falsehoods and distorted points of view exist with both ideological extremes. As a result, it has become difficult for the public to tell what is accurate and what is not. At the same time, new AI chatbots like ChatGPT has the potential to increase these disinformation campaigns. With these developments, there are some who believe the Florida bloggers registration bill is a step in the right direction.
It should also be pointed out that the Florida bloggers registration bill would not apply to newspapers and similar media. Instead, Florida Senate Bill 1316 targets freelance bloggers who either post political content on their own or for a small enterprise. This aspect of the bill suggests that additional motivations beyond media accountability may be present. Specifically, the bill may also be trying to identify the source of payment for this content. As part of the bill, bloggers are required to include their compensation and its source for a published article. This aspect of the Florida bloggers registration bill makes it feel even more like “Big Brother” oversight.
An Atypical Legislative Position
Given that a Republican state senator proposed Florida Senate Bill 1316, things appear even more unusual. Conservative views tend to encourage less government involvement as opposed to more. In this regard, the Florida bloggers registration bill seems to mirror a Russian bloggers law established in 2014 against political content. This atypical stance highlights how we as a nation are struggling with disinformation and fake news in today’s world. But the answer is not government oversight or registration laws. Instead, each individual must be responsible to determine for themselves what information is legitimate and that which is not.
The Florida bloggers registration bill does violate First Amendment rights and will not likely pass. But that doesn’t mean we as a nation aren’t struggling when it comes to false media content. Clearly, this is an issue that needs an effective solution. But suppressing free speech and freedom of the press isn’t the answer. Instead, empowering these rights represents a move in a better direction in addressing these issues.