S.C. legislator proposes 'South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry,' coupled with 'requirements for persons before working as a journalist'

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


South Carolina state legislator Mike Pitts has introduced this bill, which he calls the "South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law." Under that bill, you'd need to register to become a journalist in South Carolina. Working as an unregistered journalist or hiring an unregistered journalist would be a crime. And a government agency could cancel your registration if it or a media outlet finds that you are "not competent to be a journalist."

Section 40-85-20…. (1) 'Journalist' means a person who in his professional capacity collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information for a media outlet, including an employee or an independent contractor.

(2) 'Media outlet' means a for-profit or not-for-profit publication or broadcast program that provides news and feature stories to the public through various distribution channels including, but not limited to, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet….

(A) The Secretary of State's Office shall create a registry for the registration of persons who qualify as a journalist pursuant to this chapter.

(B) A person seeking to register shall provide all information required by the office including, but not limited to, a criminal record background check, an affidavit from the media outlet attesting to the applicant's journalistic competence, and an application fee in an amount determined by the office.

(C) A registration is valid for two years and must be renewed within thirty days of expiration.

(D) … (2) The Secretary of State's Office shall deny, revoke, or refuse to issue or renew a registration if a media outlet has determined pursuant to Section 40-85-40 that the person is not competent to be a journalist….

Section 40-85-30. (A) Before hiring or contracting with a person as a journalist, a media outlet shall require the person to present a copy of a criminal record background check and shall make a determination pursuant to Section 40-85-40 whether the person is competent to be a journalist.

(B) Before working as a journalist for a media outlet in this State, a person shall provide a criminal record background check to the media outlet to determine journalistic competence and register with the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry. After registering, the person shall provide a copy of the registration to the media outlet. A person may not work as a journalist until the person provides a copy of a registration to the media outlet.

Section 40-85-40. (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.

The Post and Courier (Gavin Jackson & Schuyler Kropf) reports that Pitts is apparently trying to make a point about the restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms imposed by concealed carry permit law:

Pitts told The Post and Courier his bill is not a reaction to any news story featuring him and that he is "not a press hater." Rather, it's to stimulate discussion over how he sees Second Amendment rights being treated by the printed press and television news. He added that the bill is modeled directly after the "concealed weapons permitting law."

"It strikes me as ironic that the first question is constitutionality from a press that has no problem demonizing firearms," Pitts said. "With this statement I'm talking primarily about printed press and TV. The TV stations, the six o'clock news and the printed press has no qualms demonizing gun owners and gun ownership."

But whatever you might say about licensing requirements for gun-carrying, American tradition has—rightly or wrongly—authorized concealed carry restrictions (and even concealed carry bans), starting in some states in the 1800s and generally accepted by courts throughout the 1800s. American tradition has taken a very different view of attempts to license journalists, from before the Revolution to the present. And I think there is good reason for that, even though I generally support broadly available concealed carry licenses: That we allow restrictions on gun possession by violent felons (restrictions on nonviolent felons are more controversial, but let's focus on the clearest example here), for instance, doesn't mean that we should allow similar restrictions on journalists.

Say what you like about revising gun laws—but don't introduce bills that would clearly violate the First Amendment, even as a way to make a rhetorical point. If you support gun rights, consider your reaction if a legislator introduced a bill that would clearly violate the Second Amendment, even if it was clear that it was just a way to make a rhetorical point about what he saw as First Amendment violations.

Thanks to Prof. Eric Freedman for the pointer. For more on the value, and limits, of First-Second Amendment analogies, see this article (long, but check the Table of Contents to see whether there are some parts you find interesting).