Florida lawmakers continued their assault on the First Amendment this week with a bill requiring “bloggers” to register with the state if they planned on writing about the Florida governor, his administration officials or any state legislator.
Florida Senate Bill 1316, filed by GOP state Sen. Jason Brodeur, comes as Brodeur and others have also introduced separate legislation to make it easier to sue the news media for alleged defamation. Weeks earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) lamented how difficult it was to sue journalists in the United States.
DeSantis and his conservative allies have been stepping up attacks on the press this year ahead of the governor’s widely expected White House run.
While both pieces of legislation would undoubtedly spark instant legal challenges, the anti-blogger bill is especially vague.
The bill defines “blog” as “a website or webpage that hosts any blogger and is frequently updated with opinion, commentary or business content.” It does not include “the website of a newspaper or similar publication” but fails to provide much more guidance than that.
“If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must register with the appropriate office … within five days,” the bill states.
Writing about the state executive branch would require registration with the Florida Commission on Ethics, while writing about the state legislative branch would necessitate registration with the Florida Office of Legislative Services. The writers must also disclose how much they were paid for their services and who paid them.
Failing to do so would lead to fines.
Ron Kuby, a First Amendment lawyer in New York, told NBC News that the bill clearly violated the Constitution.
“We don’t register journalists,” Kuby told the outlet.
Journalists in the United States enjoy powerful free speech protections granted to them by the U.S. Constitution and cemented by the U.S. Supreme Court, which set a high bar for defamation suits in the landmark 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan. Plaintiffs must show the defendant acted with actual malice, meaning that they either knew what they said to be false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
Florida lawmakers aim to weaken those protections with two bills: Florida House Bill 991, introduced by state Rep. Alex Andrade (R) in February, and Florida Senate Bill 1220, introduced by Brodeur this week.
Brodeur’s version watered down some of the language contained in Andrade’s version, the Orlando Sentinel reported. But the outlet stated that Brodeur’s bill would still amount to sweeping change for journalism in Florida.
Both aim for the use of anonymous sources, which are typically used when a source has information they believe the public should hear but fears personal or professional retaliation by having their name attached to it. However, both would automatically declare the information provided by anonymous sources false, and journalists would have a harder time protecting sources’ identities.
Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told the Orlando Sentinel that both versions were “horrendous.”
Block said in a Feb. 27 blog post on the foundation’s website, reacting to the House version of the defamation bill: “Throughout history, tyrants on the left and the right as well as powerful Robber Barons have often moved to crush the press in order to control messaging.”