By: Juan Ortega
March 17, 2023
Just five days before the Florida Legislature convened in Tallahassee for its 2023 Legislative Session, a new bill was introduced that, if passed, would test the limits of free speech in the state of Florida. Republican State Senator Jason Brodeur, representing Florida’s 10th district, introduced Senate Bill 1316, titled “Information Dissemination.” While the bill is somewhat restrained by not being enforced against news media, it would still require paid bloggers who write posts about the governor, the lieutenant governor, elected cabinet members, and members of the Florida Legislature to register their blog posts with the state’s Office of Legislative Services or the Commission of Ethics, depending on the branch the blog’s subject works in. The bill defines a “blog” as being “a website or webpage that . . . is frequently updated with opinion, commentary, or business content.” A blogger’s registration of his or her political posts must take place within five days of the blog’s publication concerning any of the aforementioned elected government officials. The blogger must then provide monthly reports to the respective office they have registered to, providing information such as the identity of the individual or entity compensating the blogger; the amount of compensation received; the date of the blog’s publishing; and a link to the blog discussing Florida elected officials. Failure to register by the required deadline would result in a $25 fine every day a blog is not registered up until the accumulated fines reach a cap of $2,500. SB1316’s reach does not expressly stop at Florida’s borders, with the term “blogger” being defined as “any person . . . that submits a blog post . . . which is subsequently published.”
The bill has received criticism from both sides of the aisle, in and out of Florida. Former Speaker of the House and Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich called the bill “an embarrassment” to the state’s Republican party and called for its immediate withdrawal. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a non-profit civil liberties group aimed at protecting free speech, described the bill as an un-American attack on the First Amendment’s protections of free speech, which allow for the right to speak anonymously. Even Governor Ron DeSantis eventually came out against the bill, telling reporters, “[T]hat’s not anything I’ve ever supported, I don’t support [it].” However, despite the pushback, Senator Brodeur dismissed criticism against his bill by comparing the requirements laid out for bloggers to those already required of lobbyists. “Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk. They both are professional electioneers,” said Senator Brodeur.
SB1316 shares eerie similarities to a bill enacted in Russia in July 2014. Russia’s Blogger Law requires that bloggers with cites that reach over 3,000 daily readers must register with the federal government’s internet and media regulator, called the Roskomnadzor. This agency sets standards for mass media, telecommunications, and information technology in Russia and is known to silence dissenting voices by blocking URLs; sending censorship orders to social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok; and controlling which television and radio broadcasts receives licenses. Furthermore, the Russia’s law forbids anonymity of bloggers and requires that at least six months of user data be saved by social networks for potential access by the state. While Russia’s version of the law is more clearly intrusive and far-reaching than the SB1316, Florida’s bill maintains aspects that are more restrictive. For example, the Russian law’s 3,000 daily user threshold is unique to that law, with the Florida bill having no size requirement and applying to all social media platforms. Additionally, despite the differences, both pieces of legislation reach the same end result: government knowledge of political content blog posts through mandatory registration.
The information required by SB1316 for bloggers to provide monthly makes Senator Brodeur’s comparison to lobbyists an unfounded attempt at justification. Most of the information, including the author, the blog cite, the blogger’s employer, are all readily available facts that can be found easily by any interested party. The only aspect that may not be so obtainable is the amount paid to the blogger. There is no true rationale for why such information would be necessary to provide to anyone. Whether a person shares a valid opinion or acts as a mouthpiece to spew a script drummed up by his or her boss is a choice they may freely make. Whether a person shares their opinion for free or for a multifigure salary gives no credence to the accuracy or validity of their stance.
In fact, Senator Brodeur’s tweet defending SB1316 and stating that the bill “gives voters clarity as to who is influencing their elected officials” raises the gaze that a blogger’s paycheck will be used to discredit them. It is every individual’s duty in a democracy to be informed citizens. It is every individual’s duty to consume and critique media. It is every individual’s duty to account for potential bias. It is not the government’s job to collect information to potentially discredit opinions it does not agree with. Furthermore, the definition given to “blog” in SB1316 means individuals will be registered for their opinions, not for misreporting or providing inaccurate information.
A blogger is not a lobbyist. The former’s only capital is held in the participation of public discussion to debate and influence voters’ ideology. The latter’s is in actual financial capital, which can be used to strongly influence candidates to take specific stances through campaign contributions. The Internet through social media, with all its flaws, has allowed for the public forum to expand to nearly all people, regardless of income or status, giving access audience to an audience of voters and legislatures once reserved for the ultrawealthy and powerful. Senator Brodeur’s SB1316 is a dangerous precedent against the First Amendment, comparable to legislation found in authoritarian countries. His justification for the bill is a veiled attempt at using the state government’s power to discredit individuals from sharing their opinions freely and openly.