You may remember State Rep. Mike Pitts of South Carolina from his defeated efforts to keep the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina State House last year. The intense media scrutiny of those efforts seem to have inspired a fairly cowardly response: According to the text of a bill he verbally introduced at the State House in Columbia today, Pitts wants to establish a government-run “responsible journalism registry” to screen, approve, and credential reporters and journalists in the Palmetto State—or else. The text of the bill’s summary reads (bolding ours):
A bill to amend the code of laws of South Carolina, 1976, by adding chapter 85 to title 40 to enact the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law” so as to establish requirements for persons before working as a journalist for a media outlet and for media outlets before hiring a journalist; to require the establishment and operation of a responsible journalism registry by the South Carolina Secretary of State’s office; to authorize registry fees; to establish fines and criminal penalties for violation of the chapter; and for other purposes.
The actual text of the bill, which was published on Tuesday evening, goes on to propose mandatory criminal background checks for working journalists, and details the sorts of infractions that would cause a journalist’s license to practice in South Carolina to be revoked:
(A) A person is not competent to be a journalist if:
(1) within the three years before submitting an application for registration, the person has been determined by a court of law to have committed:
(a) libel, slander, or invasion of privacy; or
(b) a felony if the underlying offense was committed to collect, write, or distribute news or other current information for a media outlet; or
(2) as a journalist, the person has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability, as applicable to the acquisition of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public.
And here are Pitts’ proposed financial and criminal penalties:
(A) A person who works as a journalist without registering pursuant to Section 40-85-30(B):
(1) for a first offense, must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars;
(2) for a second offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than fifteen days, or both; and
(3) for a third or subsequent offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.
The proposed legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional. Any government plan to levy “fines and criminal penalties” against reporters or journalists whose work does not meet the government’s standard of “responsible journalism” would almost certainly be overturned on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court has repeatedly invalidated government attempts to limit and/or sanction speech, under the principle that “prior restraint” on any form of expression can only be sought after every other legal remedy has been exhausted. In a unanimous decision published in 1976, the Court argued that “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”
Pitts’ proposed legislation is doubly alarming considering that, in other circumstances, he has invoked the U.S. Constitution to defend other proposals. In 2010, for example, he attempted to revert South Carolina to the gold standard, based upon his interpretation of the Constitution’s commerce clause. He has also tried to expand access to firearms on Second Amendment grounds. After introducing a bill that would let state residents obtain a hidden-carry permit without taking a gun safety course, he told one reporter, “My proposal would free a law-abiding South Carolinian from the requirement of having to take a course to exercise his Second Amendment rights to carry a concealed weapon on his person.”
Pitts did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent on Tuesday afternoon. We’ll update this post if we hear back.