Fact checker: Registration bill a First Amendment violation

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Michigan state representative has introduced a bill that would require professional fact checkers to register with the state and carry at least $1 million in insurance coverage.

House Bill 4813 was introduced Tuesday by Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, and referred to the Committee on Regulatory Reform. The bill would force any fact-checking entity or anyone who is compensated for that work to register with the Secretary of State’s Office and show proof of a fidelity bond worth at least $1 million. Violators would be subject to a $1,000 fine for each day the violation continues.

Over the last year, Maddock has criticized the power social media companies have on free speech and has accused fact-checking organizations of targeting conservatives.

“Malicious or sloppy fact checkers can destroy someone’s life, destroy a business or a politician and they suffer no consequences,” he told News 8 Wednesday. “This bill simply gives us the mechanism to hold them accountable and make them more accurate.”

In a Facebook post last month, Maddock posted a picture of himself wearing a shirt that said “Goolag” in font mimicking the Google logo, with a caption that said “tens of thousands of (fact-checking organizations) are spying on us.”

The bill directly addresses the International Fact Checking Network, which is a department of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school in Florida. (H.B. 4813 incorrectly identifies the group as International Fact Check Network.) The IFCN works with 92 fact-checking organizations around the world to promote a basic set of standards and principles and provides training tools.

Baybars Orsek, the director of the IFCN, told News 8 it is “unfortunate” to see Maddock’s bill, calling it a violation of the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and the press.

“This bill is a clear violation of the First Amendment. It’s a principle that we need to stick by,” Orsek said. “It should be a top priority for journalists and fact checkers, but more importantly the lawmakers who are responsible to protect those rights.”

Lawmakers from several states have introduced similar bills in recent years, including a 2016 bill in South Carolina and a 2019 bill in Georgia. Neither gained much traction in their respective bodies and never became law. Orsek expects a similar response this time.

“I still remain cautiously optimistic that common sense will prevail and such bills will not go anywhere. But it is also my duty to raise awareness of the dangers associated with floating such bills which are, again, in clear violation of the First Amendment,” he said.

Orsek also responded to Maddock’s accusations that fact checkers are unfairly targeting conservatives by saying the principles they follow are clear and available for public consumption.

“It is common knowledge that fact checkers prioritize content claims that are of public relevance. So if it happens that the politicians are having so much influence on the public opinion, then it is inevitable that fact checkers are scrutinizing those claims whether they are coming from Republicans or Democrats,” Orsek said. “If the congressman or anyone else can take a look at the fact checkers’ websites, (including) PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, The Washington Post, USA Today, Lead Stories, many others, they will see that there is a fair representation of claims that fact checkers are putting on their websites.”

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