Bill Cotterell on Brodeur's blogger bill: Well intentioned, but unconstitutional

The First Amendment says the press is free to write what it wants without government intrusion.

Image by Dorothe from Pixabay

The emergency is over, the crisis has passed, and the news media can calm down now that the fearsome blogger registration bill has been consigned to the wastebasket of the 2023 legislative session.

That’s too bad, in a way. The bill (SB 1316) by Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, had a good intention – except for fairly shouting its unconstitutionality. 

The First Amendment says the press is free to write what it wants without government intrusion. Governments – state, federal or otherwise – can’t license the media or require periodic reports on where they get their money. Now, if they get things wrong or violate libel laws, which Gov. Ron DeSantis would like to make it easier to prove in court, they can be held responsible.

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But you and I and some small-town weekly paper and CNN are free to report or opine as we see fit. Brodeur’s bill would have required bloggers to make monthly reports of income derived from posting notices about the governor, lieutenant governor, Cabinet officers and members of the Florida Legislature. Newspapers and broadcasters would have been exempt from reporting.

DeSantis and GOP House Speaker Paul Renner of Palm Coast have said they oppose the bill. That means it won’t even get a committee hearing. 

One big flaw is that it would apply to only statewide officeholders and state legislators. What about mayors and county commissioners and sheriffs? If bloggers should be required to disclose who pays them to write about the top guns of state government, why not all elected officials?

A more important snag, though, is that the registration and reporting would apply to all blogs about top state officers. If it was meant to require disclosure of sponsored blogs meant to oppose or support a particular political position or person, that would be one thing. Brodeur said he wanted the bloggers to be treated like lobbyists if they’re supporting a position on pending legislation.

Alas, it would still be unconstitutional. But at least there would be some ethical disclosure in knowing who’s paying to give readers a persuasive point of view when they read a blog.

But the bill would apply to any kind of writing about the designated officers. If a blogger wrote that DeSantis won reelection last November, or that the Legislature convened its annual session on March 7, he or she would have to report who paid for their post. You ought to know if the information you’re receiving is impartial news coverage or paid-for propaganda disguised as objective reporting. But getting the law to define which is which runs afoul of free speech.

It’s odd that Brodeur’s ill-fated bill concedes with Fox News getting caught presenting lies about the 2020 election, and Tucker Carlson telling viewers the Jan. 6 rioting was really just some visitors doing a little sightseeing. The network and commentator may not have been paid to lie, but they received something of value – as specified in Brodeur’s bill – in the form of exclusive access to security videos of the rioting.

Certainly media bias has been a chronic complaint, paid for or not, in American politics. It’s not unreasonable for information sources to disclose if they’re being paid, with money or some special consideration, for hammering one candidate and boosting another.

Fifty years ago, when I worked in Raleigh, North Carolina, there were no blogs but we used to get a constant stream of information from medical experts who insisted “the jury is still out” on smoking and health. They didn’t disclose that tobacco companies were sponsoring their supposed scientific research. 

Throughout history, including the earliest days of this country, it’s been common for government agencies or political candidates to align with publications that exist solely to push partisan causes. The internet has made it possible for everybody to be a journalist. But whether it’s the New York Times, NBC or this column you’re reading now, legitimate news and opinion sites are not paid to advocate for or against the vouchers-for-all school bill or the “constitutional carry” gun proposal.

It would be good for the reader if blogs had to disclose what’s free expression of ideas, and what’s paid-for persuasion packaged by interested sources. But we’re on our own.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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