Michigan state Republican lawmakers introduced legislation on Tuesday that would require news organizations that produce fact-checked articles to register with the state. Under the legislation, if state officials deem facts within the reporting to be untrue, the organization would be subject to fines.
House Bills 4813 and 4814 would apply to news organizations and websites that are part of the International Fact-Checking Network, created by the Poynter Institute, an organization that is dedicated to improving journalism and is attempting to connect fact checkers from around the world through the network.
The bills would require fact checkers to register with the office of the state’s secretary of state, and to insure themselves with a $1 million bond against the possibility of fines in the amount of $1,000 any time state officials find something has been incorrectly reported. The legislation would also allow anyone to sue fact checkers for “wrongful conduct” that violates Michigan state laws.
The lead sponsor of the bills, Rep. Matt Maddock, introduced the idea last Thursday — three days after World Press Freedom Day. Maddock displayed images of the bills on his Facebook page with a dubious justification that the laws are needed because social media companies are deplatforming individuals based on the findings of fact checkers.
“Who are these Fact Checkers? We’re going to find out,” he warned in his post.
His post implied there was a significant problem regarding fact checkers getting things wrong in recent reporting in the state. “My legislation will put Fact Checkers on notice: don’t be wrong, don’t be sloppy, and you better be right,” he added.
Yet, no such incidents of neglectful fact-checking seem to exist, and punishments against news organizations for false or neglectful reporting already exist in the form of libel laws. Rather, it appears that this crusade is a personal matter for the state lawmaker.
Maddock and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, who is co-chair of the state’s Republican Party, have failed several fact checks of their own, including over statements they have made downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and falsely alleging that there was election fraud in the state during the 2020 elections.
“Maddock’s bill is just another play in his brazen attempt to perpetuate the Big Lie,” said House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, responding to the legislation. “If trying to override the will of the people wasn’t enough, now Maddock is trying to intimidate and harass journalists and others who work to promote the truth, keep our citizens informed, and hold our elected officials accountable.”
The legislation, if passed, would likely violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It would also likely violate Michigan’s own state Constitution, which reads:
Every person may freely speak, write, express and publish his views on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of such right; and no law shall be enacted to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.
It’s largely understood that “abuses” of the right to press freedoms mean slander or libel of an individual or a group. Fact checkers would qualify for that standard and face the consequences — if they allow misleading or untrue information to be published. But the First Amendment exists to restrict government oversight of a person’s or news organization’s publications, and it’s unlikely that Maddock’s legislation would be permissible under the law.