The South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law proposed by state Rep. Mike Pitts makes unregistered, practicing journalists in the state illegal. Journalists who are found unlicensed can be fined up to $25 for their first offense. If these journalists continue to work without a license, they will be fined up to $100 and can spend up to 15 days imprisoned.
To join this proposed registry, journalists must present an affidavit from their publication and a background check must be performed. The bill is formulated to be similar to a gun registry.
A right to free press is written into the First Amendment and journalism is one of the many jobs utilizing this freedom in the Bill of Rights. This same free press, unregulated by any government institution, is crucial to democracy.
If the press is regulated and registered with the government, then the government can, in theory, pick and choose which journalists can publish work.
A registry for guns makes sense: those who own a gun, a weapon that can cause physical harm if used improperly, should have to undergo these checks that are required in the bill. But journalists have their own code of ethics that are taken seriously by all professional organizations.
Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center and First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte said there is “no way” this bill could be considered constitutional.
LoMonte said this registry does not seem too threatening to journalists due to the backlash it’s already received from journalists across the nation, but he fears for the status of press freedoms if the bill is taken seriously.
“If [the registry] went any place, if it got serious consideration, then it would be incredibly intimidating to journalists trying to go to the Capitol,” LoMonte said. “Someone is considering whether or not you can remain in the profession or not.”
Journalists already go through background checks before they receive government credentials for covering many major events. A registry is a perfect example of restrictive government—a politician putting their hands on the rights of others where they do not belong.
“The profession has standards to police itself,” LoMonte said. “If journalists are behaving in an unethical way, then there are already mechanisms in the profession to drum those people out. We don’t need licensure to do that.”
The congressman who proposed this bill is one of the few who defended the confederate flag remaining in front of the state Capitol back in July 2015.
Some people may occasionally pose as journalists to get into important events, LoMonte said. The registry would be impractical even if people were asking for licensure at every interview.
“I think fortunately the backlash has been so fierce that it may have the opposite effect of what was intended and make journalists more determined just because they know this is such an overreach,” LoMonte said.
The bill received criticism from many outlets including editorials from the Washington Post and Huffington Post. The South Carolina Press Association told Bluffton Today they would fight “tooth and nail” if the bill got any traction. According to NPR, the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said the bill is “another (unconstitutional) waste of tax dollars.”
Since Pitts proposed the bill, he has said that it was a “ruse” to show “media bias” when it comes to the First Amendment after the backlash it received.
Many journalists fell into his trap, but it is up to journalists to fight for their right to be independent whenever a threat is brought up against them. And to use tax dollars to propose a bill that would threaten a free democracy is irresponsible at best.
Bullets and guns can break one’s bones, but a journalist’s words need to remain unregulated.
“Hands off my gun!” is very different than “Hands off my First Amendment.” A gun can kill and maim. But a journalist? Our words may have power and can travel at a speed faster than a bullet, but shouldn’t be treated as killing machines.
Gillian McGoldrick can be reached at email@example.com.