If Florida state Sen. Jason Brodeur gets his way, paid bloggers who cover that state’s governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet, or legislature must register with the state, much as lobbyists do, or face fines that can reach $2,500.
“Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk,” Brodeur is quoted in floridapolitics.com. “They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists must register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”
Brodeur’s point seems to be that if the enumerated First Amendment rights of lobbyists (the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances) can be regulated, why can’t we regulate the rights of bloggers (freedom of speech and the press)?
If this sounds reasonable on its face, it isn’t when you look at it closely.
In Florida, lobbyists are government relations professionals who are paid to visit legislators to present the views of their corporate, union, NGO, or other special-interest employers. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that government can require such lobbyists to register. Other Floridians can write, petition, or go to their legislator’s office, without any registration or restrictions. That’s called democracy.
The same freedom applies to bloggers. They don’t show up at the Capitol on a daily basis. They may be paid or unpaid. They may work for the common good or spread disinformation. They may shed light or start fires. They can disrespect, criticize, ridicule, and skewer state officers – including Sen. Jason Brodeur – because, you see, the First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” And more than two centuries of American law makes it clear these principles apply to government at all levels, from Tallahassee, Florida; to Laredo, Texas; to Sacramento, California, where youth sporting groups have had to go to court to defend themselves against a law that degrades both their First and Second Amendment rights.
It is easy to see why some people – and politicians – get upset with commentary from the shadier precincts of social media, especially content subsidized by special interests with partisan, ideological, or personal axes to grind. There is no way to stamp this out; however, that doesn’t justify the far worse problem of censorship. The only solution is to marshal facts, be a good communicator, and be vocal in response.
Requiring millions of people who blog about state politicians to register or face fines would be an onerous burden on speech. It would subject political speech to regulation, an impulse far too close to practices in Venezuela, Russia, or China for comfort. And yet, there is increasing interest from the right and the left to find new ways to restrict speech.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had to strike down Florida’s social media law that would have placed restrictions on how social media platforms can moderate content. “Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can't tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Judge Kevin Newsom, appointed by President Trump. A court had to hold up several provisions of a Florida law that would have attempted to fine-tune academic speech.
Many people agree when you complain that the media and the academy have become unfair or increasingly one-sided. But passing one poorly-crafted, unconstitutional messaging bill after another won’t change anything.
Should this bill become law, expect mass civil disobedience from bloggers, including from us. If Florida wants to reduce criticism in the blogosphere, we suggest refraining from proposing and passing unconstitutional laws. That would do more good than trying to regulate free speech.