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Free speech fiasco?

By: Jeff Jeffrey//January 20, 2016//

Free speech fiasco?

By: Jeff Jeffrey//January 20, 2016//

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Journalists in South Carolina may soon have to report themselves to the government before they can report on anything else in the state. At least, that’s the goal of a bill put forward Jan. 19 in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Michael A. Pitts, R-Laurens.

Under Pitts’ legislation, dubbed the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law, reporters in the state would be required to register with and be deemed competent by the South Carolina Secretary of State before they could commit any acts of journalism.

The text of Pitts’ bill proposes that the state create a “Responsible Journalism Registry” for all reporters working in the state. Journalists would have to be formally approved by the registry before they could get a job with a media outlet. Pitts’ bill would also give the Secretary of State the authority to bar reporters from doing journalism if they are deemed to have “a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.”

Reporters who fail to register would also face criminal penalties of up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. Additionally, media outlets would be required to submit affidavits attesting to each reporter’s competence. Oh, and there’s an application fee.

The bill is currently before the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

Pitts did not return multiple calls seeking comment. But he has been quoted as saying the bill grew out of his frustration with the way gun issues are covered in South Carolina. According to his legislative website, Pitts is a life member of the National Rifle Association. He is also a member of the North American Hunting Club and Gun Owners of South Carolina.

That said, Pitts is likely to face stiff opposition in his effort to get the bill passed. Along with the obvious constitutional problems with the bill, namely the First Amendment, the South Carolina Press Association has already vowed to lobby against the legislation.

David Cox, a partner with Charleston’s Barnwell Whaley who has represented newspapers and TV stations in First Amendment cases, said requiring someone to register before engaging in speech would “pretty clearly” be a prior restraint, which has been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This law would be worthy of a theocracy such as Iran, or a totalitarian state such as North Korea;  it is not worthy of a country founded on the Bill of Rights,” Cox said. “Shame on Mr. Pitts for this half-cocked idea, and for wasting our legislature’s time.”

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