Why the Pitts Proposal Isn’t Just a Dumb Joke

January 20, 2016

Inside Insight

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South Carolina Statehouse Dome

It’s yet another instance of legislation intended to threaten

Yesterday a bill was filed in the South Carolina General Assembly that would set up an official registry for journalists. Not lobbyists. Journalists.

The bill would “establish requirements for persons before working as a journalist for media outlet and for media outlets before hiring a journalist; to require the establishment and operation of a responsible journalism registry by the South Carolina Secretary of State’s office; [and] to authorize registry fees; to establish fines and criminal penalties for violation of the chapter.” The punishment for not being registered? Imprisonment for up to 30 days, or a $500 fine.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Greenwood).

We don’t know Pitts’ motives or the rationale behind this manifestly unconstitutional and prima facie preposterous bill. We gather from remarks made to the Post and Courier that the reason has something to do with the news media’s alleged disdain for Second Amendment rights. The joke seems to be: If journalists are going to advocate that guns be registered, then he, Rep. Pitts, is going to advocate that journalists be registered.

Get it?

But while many in the media rightly express outrage and disbelief that a state lawmaker would propose, even as a bad joke, a registry for journalists – a proposal sounding for all the world as if it came from Vladimir Putin – we’d like to suggest that Pitts’ idea has arisen from a mindset that’s absolutely typical of the South Carolina General Assembly.

State lawmakers routinely use their lawmaking powers to intimidate and harass their critics. It happens all the time.

And we ought to know. The Nerve, together with our parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, has been the object of lawmakers’ threats more than once before. Some of these bills may have been intended as mean-spirited jokes, just as Pitts’ proposal evidently was – not necessarily as serious policy proposals, but as warning shots, using lawmakers’ special proximity to the law code to fire those shots and make them scary. On the other hand, some of these proposals weren’t bad jokes or warning shots at all: they were proposed in dead earnest, intended for the law code.

A bill currently in the legislature, for example, would force nonprofit groups like the Policy Council and others to disclose their financial supporters – an obvious attempt to bully those supporters into withholding their support.

Last year, the House nearly passed a rule that would have forced citizens wishing to testify before House committees to do so under oath – and face felony charges for giving “materially misleading” or “materially incomplete” testimony. Of course, there was never any known problem with people giving false testimony before legislative committees. The bill was intended to intimidate certain citizens known for giving testimony considered disagreeable by lawmakers. If they said something lawmakers didn’t like – something “materially misleading” – they could go to jail. (The proposal was dropped after The Nerve ran a story on it.)

And don’t forget the new restructuring law. Passed in 2014, the massive bill contained a provision making “contempt for the General Assembly” a felony. (Bear in mind: there is only one felony in the entire Ethics Act, the section of the law code governing lawmakers’ conduct. Yet some lawmakers are quite generous in distributing felonies to other parts of the code – parts that don’t apply particularly to elected officials.)

Another bill would have enabled state agencies to haul citizens who submit troublesome Freedom of Information requests before a court. Thinking about submitting a FOIA to a government agency? Be careful. You could find yourself before some newfangled tribunal. (Although the bill passed the House, it failed in the Senate.)

Or consider a 2014 legislation that would have given lawmakers the authority to investigate “alleged” violations of ethics laws by constitutional officers. That move, of course, was universally and correctly regarded as then-Speaker Bobby Harrell’s attempt to threaten – or maybe the term is retaliate against – Attorney General Alan Wilson for investigating Harrell’s conduct.

Remember, too, last year’s attempt by Sen. Luke Rankin to threaten a private citizen with criminal prosecution for violating a Senate rule. A Senate rule? That’s right.

And don’t forget – we certainly won’t forget – the shady army of “consultants” out there who get paid to libel critics of powerful politicians.

The really significant thing about the Pitts bill, then, isn’t just that we have a legislator willing to use the powers accorded him by our republic to propose legislation he knows to be unconstitutional as a way of scoring points against people whose views he doesn’t approve of. That’s significant, but it’s not the main point. The lesson here, rather, is that intimidation and retaliation are now a part of the State House culture.

In other words: It’s about more than a silly bill. It’s about a nasty mindset.