A legislative proposal aimed at outlawing “fake news” websites was sidelined in the California State Legislature at the eleventh hour Tuesday upon drawing fire from free speech advocates over its certain implications on the First Amendment.
California Assemblyman Ed Chau, Monterey Park Democrat, abruptly canceled plans Tuesday to hold a hearing dedicated to A.B. 1104, a bill that would have made it illegal to publish false or deceptive statements on the internet about a political candidate or ballot measure.
Also known as the California Political Cyberfraud Abatement Act, Mr. Chau’s office previously called the proposal “an important step forward in the fight against ‘fake news’ and deceptive campaign tactics.” Critics said the offering was blatantly in violation of free speech laws, however, and mounted a campaign earlier this week aimed at tabling the bill amid First Amendment concerns.
“At a time when political leaders are promoting ‘alternative facts’ and branding unflattering reporting as ‘fake news,’ we don’t think it’s a good idea to give the government more power to punish speech,” said Dave Maass*, an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital rights group that spearheaded a campaign this week against Mr. Chau’s proposal.
“Political operatives could file complaints at the slightest hint of hyperbole or smallest misstatement of fact by a candidate,” he said. “Prosecutors could launch politically motivated investigations. The bill doesn’t even exempt journalism, leaving bloggers who want to quote false statements before debunking them in a legal limbo. Even satirical websites, such as The Onion, could come under fire for posting technically false information. You could even get in trouble for retweeting something inaccurate that someone else said.”
Tuesday’s hearing was canceled upon Mr. Chau’s request, according to the California legislature website. No public explanation was presented online, and efforts to contact his office Wednesday regarding the status of the bill were not immediately successful.
Specifically Mr. Chau’s proposal would make it “unlawful for a person to knowingly and willingly make, publish or circulate on an Internet Web site, or cause to be made, published, or circulated in any writing posted on an Internet Web site, a false or deceptive statement designed to influence” either the outcome of a ballot measure or election.
* Dave Maass was spelled incorrectly in the original text. It has been fixed.