Florida Republicans Are Reminding Us Again: The Right Doesn’t Care About Free Speech

The Right makes a big show of supporting free speech. But Republicans are advancing legislation in Florida that is doing the exact opposite, attempting to clamp down on the free speech rights of bloggers who criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaking in early February, 2023. (@GovRonDeSantis / Twitter)

Earlier this month, Florida state senator Jason Brodeur proposed a piece of legislation that has to count among the most stupidly sinister in recent memory. SB 1316, which Brodeur has innocuously titled “An Act Relating to Information Dissemination,” would force bloggers who write about Ron DeSantis and other government officials to register with the state or face stiff financial penalties if they refuse.

The bill would further compel anyone who wants to write about “elected state officers” (defined in its text as “the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, a Cabinet officer, or any member of the Legislature”) to disclose the source and amount of any compensation they receive, right down to the individual post: “If a blogger posts to a blog about an elected state officer and receives, or will receive, compensation for that post, the blogger must register.”

Brodeur has sought to frame the legislation using the language of openness and transparency. “Paid bloggers are lobbyists who write instead of talk,” he told Florida Politics. “They both are professional electioneers. If lobbyists have to register and report, why shouldn’t paid bloggers?”

Do you want to know the truth about the so-called “blogger” bill?

It brings the current pay-to-play scheme to light and gives voters clarity as to who is influencing their elected officials, JUST LIKE how we treat lobbyists. It’s an electioneering issue, not a free speech issue pic.twitter.com/XO6RKhrjZq

— Jason Brodeur (@jasonbrodeur) March 5, 2023

Mercifully, the bill is very unlikely to pass. The governor’s office is reportedly reviewing it, but a passively worded statement from DeSantis’s press secretary did not suggest it would receive his backing in present form. Newt Gingrich, for some reason, has come out strongly against it. It’s also met with a decidedly cool reception in the conservative media.

Taken on its own, SB 1316 is nonetheless a fascinating case study in how easily authoritarian ideas can be laundered through the language of openness and transparency. If a hypothetical liberal lawmaker had proposed anything even remotely resembling it, the conservative response would basically write itself: the idea of a blogger registry would be framed as a dystopian instance of state overreach against freedom of speech (and, for once, that framing would be entirely correct).

That a lawmaker sitting deep in DeSantis country apparently sees no contradiction between his own, oft-declared support for freedom of speech and forcing political bloggers to register with the state is instructive in itself. The conservative project is often understood in relation to concepts like property rights and the rhetorical constructs — free speech, states’ rights, etc. — invoked by conservatives themselves. In practice, however, supposedly cherished and foundational values like these can be subordinated to higher objectives whenever it becomes convenient.

The Right thinks all kinds of regulations on private companies — safety rules, minimum wage laws — are oppressive because the free market is sacrosanct, but is perfectly content to enforce stringent rules on those it deems excessively woke or decides are treating conservatives unfairly. The state should get off people’s backs and stop enforcing a rigid morality on private individuals — unless they’re transgender youth, drag performers, or academics teaching particular subjects.

The state should get off people’s backs and stop enforcing a rigid morality on private individuals — unless they’re transgender youth, drag performers, or academics.

Republican-controlled states like Florida and Texas are now regularly advancing initiatives along these lines under the neutral-sounding rhetoric of freedom and choice. In this context, it’s quite easy to see how the leap from free speech maximalism to a state blogger registry can actually be a very short one indeed. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote in 2021:

Republicans cannot imagine labor relations as exploitative except in that someone might have to sit through a tedious video on race or gender sensitivity in the workplace. They do not perceive the concentration of corporate power as perilous unless companies’ desire to retain their customer base interferes with Republican schemes to entrench their own political dominance. They see freedom of speech as vital, unless it prevents them from using the state to sanction forms of political expression they oppose.

It’s in exactly this spirit that self-identified free speech champion DeSantis (and Brodeur, who is personally sponsoring it in the Florida Senate) are currently backing another bill that poses an existential threat to press freedom. By reforming the state’s defamation laws, the bill aims to eliminate a number of existing protections for journalists: making it harder for them to quote anonymous sources, curtailing anti–strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) rules designed to minimize frivolous lawsuits that can serve to chill free speech, and weakening the working definition of “actual malice” so that wealthy people and government officials alike can more easily sue and intimidate reporters. If realized, as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm argues in the Guardian, it could quite literally destroy independent media in Florida.

While it might be tempting to accuse DeSantis of hypocrisy, there’s ultimately no inconsistency here beyond the level of rhetoric. As in so many areas, the Right is perfectly capable of invoking freedom of speech when it’s ideologically advantageous while, at the same time, trying to curtail dissent. And if you only support free expression that aligns with your own interests and worldview, you don’t really support it at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *