Tennessee Lawmakers Decide Chris Sevier Has Good Ideas, Push His Bill To Compel Speech From Media Outlets

from the SLANDER-MACHINE-has-entered-the-chat dept

There's no freer speech than compelled speech. That's the conclusion some Tennessee legislators have come to. Sure, they managed to whip up an actual anti-SLAPP law that's starting to curtail the state's reputation as a place where anyone can be sued for anything they say… including things they didn't actually say.

But the stuff flowing out the state's legislature lately has been atrocious. Late last year -- shortly after Donald Trump's election loss -- a state senator asked the federal government (Congress, specifically) to craft a law that would make flag burning illegal.

A few months later, the conservative hobby horse was taken for spin, resulting in an attempt to neutralize Section 230 protections by making it pretty much impossible for the state government to invest in anything. The bill pitched by legislators would prevent the state from investing money in any entity that benefitted from Section 230 immunity. Since Section 230 provides immunity to both providers and users, any users of internet services would also be deemed ineligible for state investment.

The state legislature isn't done threatening free speech and free speech-adjacent protections. For reasons only known to a few lawmakers, it's apparently time to start compelling speech. And for reasons no one will be able to adequately explain, presumably non-insane legislators are allowing Chris Sevier -- perhaps most famous for suing Apple for not preventing him from watching porn on his laptop -- to speak through them by introducing his whereas-heavy rants as legislative proposals.

Sevier managed to do the same thing in Rhode Island last year. He shoved a bill into some legislators' hands and somehow legislators thought attacking free speech with laws was a good idea. It's happening again in Tennessee: same legislation, same stupid name, same not-so-benign idiot pushing it.

The so-called "Stop Guilt by Association Act" takes aim at… something. What it actually does is compel speech. The bill would be an entertaining read if it were satire. But it's very real and there are already two versions (House and Senate) awaiting debate in the Tennessee legislature.

The bill [PDF] tosses around a lot of invective and inadvertently hilarious phrases. It opens up with some lip service to the constitutional right it's going to be violating shortly thereafter:

WHEREAS, the general assembly finds that the first amendment of the United States constitution asserts that the government "shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press";

and WHEREAS, freedom of the press in the United States is not absolute and is subject to certain restrictions, such as defamation law;

and WHEREAS, the state has a compelling interest to compel the press to promote the objective truth for the sake of the viability of democracy; for the safety, health, and welfare of our communities; for keeping with the spirit of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment; and for stopping the press from serving as a slander machine…

Slander Machine is my new favorite post-punk band.

The only thing "compelling" here is the speech the legislature is planning on forcing out of media outlets. It's basically a "right to be forgotten" bill stapled to incredibly novel theories about what a free press is obliged to do when reporting on arrests, indictments, lawsuits, etc.

WHEREAS, there has been a growing trend for individuals to abuse process and maliciously prosecute someone they disagree with ideologically by filing spurious cases and controversies in various government venues for ulterior motives, knowing that certain segments of the media that align with their ideology would serve as an accomplice by engaging in a form of defamation in-kind by selectively reporting on the facts of the original case but not on the actual outcome in actions where the petitioner received less relief than originally sought, which cultivates an unjust prejudicial conviction in the court of public opinion, causing the cause to be shunned, avoided, and marginalized, and the media outlet guilty of defamation in-kind to the point that it unduly decreases the quality of life for the accused…

Hey, that sucks. But that's not a free speech issue. The government has no business -- much less a "compelling interest" -- telling media outlets they need to report on all aspects of any litigation or criminal case. Sure, it would be great if press outlets reported that the person they splashed all over the pages three months ago has been cleared of all charges, but that's just not going to happen in most cases, and the government has no right to force media outlets to publish articles detailing these often-ignored outcomes.

The legislation is completely unconstitutional. There's just no way around it. And allowing an unedited Sevier to engage in proxy speechmaking is just all kinds of stupid.

WHEREAS, the purpose of this act is to prevent unchecked media outlets from acting as slander machines by engaging in defamation in-kind, abusing the general public, and degrading the integrity of our institutions of justice through selective reporting on cases and controversies that cultivate false narratives to the point that it unduly injures the accused by eroding their civil liberties, causing them to be shunned and avoided by the general public due to a cloud of suspicion of wrongdoing that does not exactly align with the original allegations or the relief provided in a case and controversy lodged before a government body; protect the integrity of the press and encourage good character of the members of the press corps; deter malicious prosecution, abuse of process in general, the overcharging of defendants by prosecutors, and the seeking of excessive relief in the original cause complaint by plaintiffs; promote a mercy-centric justice system because no human is perfect; and deter convictions in the court of public opinion that do not necessarily align with convictions by our institutions of justice…

Left unexplained is how compelling speech "protects the integrity of the press." And while it's great to see someone (sort of) acknowledge prosecutors engage in overcharging and the criminal justice system is largely devoid of mercy, this bill was written solely to give government officials the power to make press outlets cover what they want them to cover. Everything else is ornamental, added to the bill to give the impression the sponsors aren't interested in respecting the First Amendment or editorial decisions made by press outlets.

This is some super-weird Fairness Doctrine-esque bullshit:

(a) A media outlet shall provide equal coverage in comparable time, place, magnitude, prominence, scale, and manner in the same format as the original reporting of a case and controversy, if:

(1) The media outlet reported on the facts of a case and controversy and the final verdict provided less relief against the accused than originally sought by the petitioner or less than could have been obtained by the petitioner; and

(2) The accused or the authorized agent of the accused sends an electronic or written notice demand to an authorized agent of the media outlet within twenty (20) days after the verdict or outcome, demanding that the facts surrounding the final and actual decision or outcome be reported and published as a follow-up to the original reporting

Who will run the press? Everyone but the press themselves apparently.

(d) If a media outlet reports on the facts of a case and controversy and displays the mugshot of the accused, and the accused is acquitted, enters into a plea of no contest, or receives an outcome more favorable than originally sought by the petitioner or available to the petitioner, then the media outlet shall:

(1) Take down or remove the mugshot from any digital publication, if possible; and

(2) Not display the mugshot in any follow-up publication that reports on the actual outcome of the case and controversy and shall only display images that the accused has authorized the media outlet use.

Whew. That's a lot of wrong to fit into eight pages of performative lawmaking. And that's what it is. It's a bill specifically written by one person who has an outsized axe to grind because of his inability to stop turning himself into the target of public ridicule.

What's worse is the legislators pushing this, who are apparently going to pretend the bill isn't a transparent attack on First Amendment protections.

Constitutionality issues aren't deterring the bill's two conservative sponsors, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Old Hickory, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma. They have introduced the legislation as House Bill 1219/Senate Bill 1297.

"You know what, I think you ask a lot of attorneys, line them all up, some would say that it's unconstitutional, some would say it's constitutional, some would probably have a mix," Lynn told the Times Free Press. "There's differing opinions."

LOL oh my no. That's self-deception right there, Rep. Lynn. No lawyer is going to tell you this bill is constitutional.

Said Bowling: "It's just to make certain that someone's reputation, in fact their life, gets kind of restored because it's hard, one person at a time who looks at you and says 'Wasn't that your picture on the front page or wasn't that your picture on the newscast or whatever?' And they say 'No, I'm innocent.' You know, well sure. It's just inequity."

Maybe so, but due process (which is also namechecked multiple times in the bill) is something to be expected from the government in criminal cases. The lack of follow-up on cases by the press doesn't violate anyone's due process rights.

It made the final legislative cut for the next season of Tennessee law-wrangling, which begins in just a couple of days. If there's any intelligence left in the legislature, the bill will get laughed out of the Capitol, rather than inch closer to the governor's desk.

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Filed Under: 1st amendment, chris sevier, compelled speech, free speech, freedom of the press, tennessee

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  1. icon
    sumgai (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 8:17pm

    WHEREAS, the state has a compelling interest to compel the press to promote the objective truth for the sake of the viability of democracy... for keeping with the spirit of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment....

    'Sfunny, every time I read 14A, I somehow fail to see anything about reporting, in any form, as being a part of 'due process'. I'm pretty sure that the Founding Fathers used the term 'due process' to mean that the government itself cannot simply run roughshod over an individual's rights, particularly those granted by the Constitution and it's several amendments.

    In the legal sense, due process has nothing to do with any non-government entity, period.

    On a different note, were I a news agency of some substance in Tennessee, I'd rally the troops to support this legislation. Why? Because I'd then send a bill to the Legislature every time I had to print something that was not newsworthy, or had to broadcast it over the air, or onto the internet. My claim would be that the non-newsworthy material was forced upon me, and by extension, onto my readers/viewers. Not only was that was a waste of resources that could've been better spent serving the community, but other newsworthy stories were perforce shunted aside. By definition, that was not serving the community's best interests.

    And all of this is before we even get to the fact that my advertisers won't pay for having their ads run next to non-newsworthy items, for obvious reasons. Which needs compensation to offset that loss....

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