Yesterday, a proposal by South Carolina state representative Mike Pitts floated the idea of requiring journalists to register with the state to ensure a responsible approach to the First Amendment. As someone who has more than a passing familiarity with Second Amendment activism, the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law” was immediately recognizable as a provocation to the media over its reporting on gun control demands. Unfortunately, a number of journalists showed themselves to be woefully unfamiliar with the gun-rights argument about regulating the First Amendment to match the way gun-control advocates want to regulate the Second Amendment, as could be seen in numerous tweets.
Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers unfortunately took his outrage to print … without actually doing enough due diligence to ask Pitts exactly what he had in mind:
My visceral reaction isn’t printable but can be summarized thusly: This is a naked attack on the First Amendment — you know, the one that says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” I realize we’re talking about a state legislature here, not Congress, but we’re also talking about one of the nation’s founding principles.
That aside, this kind of law would be completely unworkable. Look, there’s plenty of media garbage out there, but everyone has a different definition of what garbage is. Does anyone want a bunch of self-interested government officials setting the standard?
We register surgeons and pilots and teachers and people in many, many other professions. You can make a coherent case that journalism is a very important profession too, but there’s a reason why journalists have reputations, instead of licenses. They have a fundamental American right to share information, and their audiences have a right to decide whether to believe it or dismiss it. By contrast, no one is entitled to remove brain tumors, fly airplanes or teach third-graders.
There’s also a practical problem: How on Earth would South Carolina’s secretary of state, charged with maintaining the registry, do its job here, anyway? Journalists can’t even define who is a journalist anymore, what with all the bloggers and tweeters posting the kind of information and opinion that used to come only from a highly institutionalized press. Good luck to Pitts when it comes to crafting a legal definition of journalism.
Come to think of it, that’s really the great folly here. What Pitts is proposing isn’t just wrong; it simply can’t be done. There’s no stopping people from spreading the news in a digital society — certainly not with some outdated idea for a registry.
This, as I noted last night, is what is called falling into the trap. National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke springs it:
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) January 20, 2016
Had Borchers asked Pitts to explain the bill, perhaps the Post wouldn’t have inadvertently explained most of the reasons a gun registry — which would only involve people who obey the law anyway — would both be impractical and offend the Constitution. Or he and other journalists could have simply read this Post and Courier story about the proposal which went up two hours earlier, and which did belatedly ask Pitts about his intentions. It takes them six paragraphs to get to it, though, and their lead still declares that Pitts “says it’s time to register journalists in the state,” even though he clearly tells them it’s not the point:
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.”
Under the bill, the Secretary of State’s Office would be tasked with keeping a “responsible journalism registry” and creating the criteria with the help of a panel on what qualifies a person as a journalist — similar to doctors and lawyers, Pitts said.
Pitts said the criminal penalties mentioned in his bill for violations would be “minor fines” similar to those concealed weapons permit holders face.
In other words, Pitts isn’t “say[ing] it’s time to register journalists in the state.” He’s saying that it’s time journalists stop being hypocritical absolutists about the First Amendment while learning nothing about the Second Amendment. Perhaps not even Pitts realized just how many journalists would miss the point — and fall into the trap of making his argument for him. And on top of that, Pitts even managed to get some to demonstrate that irresponsible journalism is a problem as well:
— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) January 20, 2016