Once upon a time, there was something called the Fairness Doctrine. Starting in 1949, that policy required holders of a public broadcast license to present multiple viewpoints on controversial issues. That rule was applied by the FCC, applied only to broadcast networks licensed by that agency, and survived a review by the Supreme Court. But well before Fox News existed and even before Rush Limbaugh, both local radio and television talk was dominated by conservative speech. Republicans hated the Fairness Doctrine, and while Ronald Reagan had control of the agency, it was simply ended on a 4-0 vote by FCC commissioners (three appointed by Reagan, one appointed by Nixon). Republicans have fought to block every attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine in any form. That 1987 elimination of the Fairness Doctrine is directly related to why Limbaugh’s show began in 1988.
At first glance, Florida’s new law may seem like an internet revival of that philosophy. However, court rulings concerning the Fairness Doctrine always recognized that it was an intrusion on the First Amendment. It was only upheld because the broadcast spectrum was limited. In any given area there were only a few radio or television stations, so protecting access to those resources was permitted, even if it meant requiring those stations to report on beliefs that didn’t align with station management.
None of that holds up well even in an era of widespread cable, much less the internet. Both courts and the FCC itself have made clear many times that online sites do not have to abide the same set of rules as licensed broadcasters.
In attempting to force social media platforms to keep broadcasting the words of political candidates, no matter how those words might violate site rules, the Florida legislature is clearly climbing across a boundary that would turn every such platform into a cesspool. (Well, more of a cesspool.) The Florida bill essentially removes any ability of these platforms to produce site rules about what can be posted, and the consequences of violating those rules. At the same time, it provides no protection to those platforms for language that violates those rules to, just as an example, incite violence, spread damaging lies, and adversely affect the health of the nation.
The whole point of this legislation is that Trump was banned. Although Trump was banned only after the events of Jan. 6 finally forced Facebook and Twitter to own up to the ugliness of the lies he had been selling all along. Other conservatives were also banned. They were banned for such events as:
That covers over 70,000 accounts. And that’s just Twitter.
What Florida is saying is that platforms are required to carry information that is false, abusive, bigoted, and that incites violence. Because the cesspool of Fox News, AM radio, Fox News, Newsmax, and OANN simply isn’t enough room for them to spread hate.
Get ready for a lot of court cases based on this new law. Get ready for them to lose. But hey, they showed Trump they were on his side, and that was the whole point.
Oh, and one more thing: This Florida bill includes is either the most ridiculous coda ever written into a law, or a bit of boilerplate Florida now inscribes into every possible act. As The New York Times reports, “A late amendment to the bill exempts companies from the law if they own a theme park or an entertainment venue larger than 25 acres. That means the law is unlikely to apply to websites owned by Disney, which operates the Walt Disney World Resort, and Comcast, which owns Universal Studios Florida.”