Florida lawmaker's bill would force political bloggers to register with state

ORLANDO, Fla. — Journalists and First Amendment experts on Friday slammed a bill from state Sen. Jason Brodeur that would require bloggers of all backgrounds to register with the state government if they write about certain Florida elected officials.

SB 1316, filed by the Republican this week for consideration in the session that begins Tuesday, would create a written record of whether a blogger is being paid to write a post online and who is paying them.

The bill specifically excludes those who write for “the website of a newspaper or other similar publication,” but has no stated exemption for online-only outlets or television stations and networks.

Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the measure goes beyond anything he’s seen in the United States.

“From my own experience, the only places where journalists would ever have to register with the government have been apartheid South Africa, the countries behind the Iron Curtain, the USSR, Zaire, Burkina Faso, and socialist Ethiopia,” Block said. “... I don’t think Florida being in that company of those countries is a good thing.”

The bill says a blogger must register either the Office of Legislative Services or the Commission on Ethics within five days after posting a story mentioning the governor, another member of the Florida Cabinet or a state legislator.

Bloggers would be required to file monthly reports every time another state elected official is mentioned, under penalty of a $25 per day fine up to $2,500 if they fail to do so.

The bill compares the registration process for paid bloggers to the one already in place for lobbyists. Any fines incurred would be paid into the Legislative Lobbyist Registration Trust Fund or Executive Branch Lobby Registration Trust Fund.

The bill is the second from Brodeur this week that would put extra restrictions on the media.

His other one, SB 1220, proposes sweeping changes to Florida’s libel and defamation law, making it easier to sue journalists by automatically presuming information from anonymous sources to be false and preventing journalists from shielding the identity of sources.

The measures come as Gov. Ron DeSantis has made “legacy media” a target for the session in Tallahassee, where the GOP has supermajorities in both chambers. The governor has repeatedly clashed with reporters during his tenure, and SB 1316 would presumably make it more difficult to criticize him and other elected officials.

Brodeur has been under intense media scrutiny because of a “ghost” candidate in the 2020 state Senate election in which he defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman. Brodeur has denied any involvement in the scheme.

Brodeur did not return requests for comment Friday.

In response, Sarah Rumpf, an Orlando journalist with the New York-based website Mediaite, posted a picture of the U.S. Constitution on Twitter, with the caption, “Here’s my documentation needed to write about DeSantis, (Attorney General Ashley) Moody, Brodeur, or any elected official.”

Rumpf said the bill’s broad language targeting any “website or webpage that hosts any blogger” that isn’t affiliated with a newspaper could be construed to include herself and almost any non-print journalist in the country.

“Considering the way that they’ve tried to enforce junk like this, I have no faith that I would be magically exempt,” Rumpf told The Orlando Sentinel. “I’ve been very outspoken criticizing the governor … and I have no interest in putting my name and information on some public records list so that people who don’t like me criticizing the governor can track me down and get mad that I’m getting paid to write.”

Rumpf added that on the “rare chance” the bill passes, “and I say rare chance because they’ve passed a lot of stuff that I would have thought was ridiculous and unconstitutional … I will be publicly declaring that I am happy to be the plaintiff for the ACLU or whichever First Amendment group wants to come forward and challenge this thing.”

Juliet Jeske, a research associate at the Tow-Knight Center News Integrity Initiative at the College of New York, also wrote she was eager to challenge the law.

Jeske wrote on her Decoding Fox News account on Twitter, “This makes me want to move to Florida and start a blog called ‘I’m going to write about Ron DeSantis and Ashley Moody’ and then just type their names hundreds of times like I was in ‘The Shining,’ just so I could sue them over this and win.”

Block said he was continually surprised by the “cascade” of controversial bills from the Florida Legislature.

“It’s kind of like watching figure skaters loop further and further out onto thin ice,” Block said. “And every time they loop out, and you’re in the audience and you go, ‘Oh, my God, they can’t, they’re not going to do that again,’ they loop out even further.

“And it just boggles the mind … other than seeing it as an attempt to undo 60 years of legal precedent, and 200 years of First Amendment protection.”