Republicans! They just love their live-action role-playing, don’t they folks. They’re still questing to find the magic law that will stop the nefarious Silicon Valley leftists and antifa journalists from censoring the land of Real America. The latest proposal? Forcing fact-checkers to register with the state.
The Detroit News reports that Michigan state Representative Matt Maddock (R-Milford) has introduced the “Fact Checker Registration Act,” a bill that requires all individuals who publish in print or online in Michigan, is paid by a fact-checking organization and is a member of the International Fact Check Network to file a $1 million fidelity bond with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. (Importantly, the IFCN certifies Facebook’s fact-checkers.) Any “affected person” could then file a claim for “any wrongful conduct that is a violation of the laws of this state” in county district court and the bond could be forfeited if a judge ruled the fact checker’s work had resulted in “demonstrable harm.” Thus the bill, as written, tries to fulfill a conservative fantasy of any aggrieved conservative being able to sue fact-checkers for six figures for practically any reason agreed upon by a judge (hopefully a loyal Republican).
In a post on Facebook, Maddock wrote, “My legislation will put Fact Checkers on notice: don’t be wrong, don’t be sloppy, and you better be right.”
The bill would also fine fact-checkers $1,000 a day if they failed to register. Eight other GOP representatives, Pat Outman, John Roth, Gary Eisen, David Martin, Robert Bezotte, Beth Griffin, John Damoose, and Steve Carra, are co-sponsors on the bill.
Maddock has a history of anti-democratic stunts and obvious personal antipathy for fact-checkers in general. According to the Detroit News, he’s proposed burning voting machines belonging to a voting tech manufacturer that right-wingers baselessly accused of electoral fraud “so we don’t use them in future elections,” he was involved in a failed federal lawsuit demanding presidential election results be certified by GOP-controlled state legislatures in five swing states, and he signed onto another failed federal suit before the Supreme Court trying to invalidate Joe Biden’s victory in Michigan. All of these efforts relied on what might be euphemistically deemed “alternative facts.”
According to the Detroit Metro Times, Maddock rallied a crowd to attempt to disrupt vote counting at TCF Center on Nov. 6, 2020, fabricating a claim that 35,000 votes for Biden “showed up out of nowhere.” He also urged former Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 election results under the mistaken argument that Pence could have somehow single-handedly kept Trump in office, one of the key motives of the crowd of Trump supporters that threw a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, ultimately resulting in several deaths.
Republicans have largely swallowed hook, line, and sinker conspiracy theories that social media companies are biased against conservatives. They have been especially enraged about piecemeal efforts by companies like Facebook and Twitter to fact-check some posts, as the companies attached fact-checking labels to posts by Donald Trump and other Republican politicians and otherwise imposed speedbumps on the virality of hoax news.
Several states have seen pushes by GOP legislators to introduce laws that would clear the way for conservatives to bombard websites with “censorship” lawsuits, while Republicans in Florida are trying to pass a law that would fine sites that “knowingly de-platform” candidates. (In reality, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube amplify the right-wing online noise machine that heavily influences the day-to-day priorities of GOP politicians and candidates, with Facebook, in particular, going out of its way to treat conservatives preferentially.)
The Washington Post noted other GOP-backed legislation has included a 2016 bill in South Carolina that would have the state only allow “responsible” journalists to publish, a 2017 bill in Indiana requiring licensing of journalists, and a 2019 proposal in Georgia to create a state “Journalism Ethics Board” that would control the way journalists did their work and impose punishments for non-compliance.
Let’s just take a moment to really emphasize that libel and defamation laws already exist.
These and other related speech bills such as congressional Republicans’ threats to throw out Section 230, a law that protects websites against most liability for user-generated content or their moderation decisions, all have two things in common. While they’re couched as protecting First Amendment rights to free speech, they’re really designed so as to assist conservatives in suppressing any speech that challenges their own speech. And barring some truly extreme upsets to legal precedent—something that’s certainly possible with a Supreme Court packed with right-wingers and/or a Republican takeover of Congress and White House in 2024—the proposals largely amount to magical thinking about the way Republicans think the First Amendment ought to be, rather than how it actually works in practice. Virtually all of the aforementioned laws would be likely thrown out in court on constitutional grounds, as journalists and social media firms both have First Amendment rights of their own, to rule otherwise would invite disastrous secondary consequences.
Case in point: In a statement to the Washington Post, Maddock suggested that the First Amendment actually means people have a right to be wrong without being told so.
“This isn’t about journalists or free speech,” he said. “It’s about the fact-checkers who have been injected into our First Amendment right to be wrong if we want to. If a fact check entity is bankrupting businesses and cancelling people with lies, they should be held accountable. If they have high standards and are doing good fact checking, they have nothing to worry about.”