“Confusion” was the tone of the hour in the House Committee on Elections and Ethics Law when they voted to approve House Bill 1065 by a narrow margin on Tuesday afternoon.
The bill – Digital Communications in Elections – seems simple at first glance. It updates the state’s electioneering disclosure laws to include digital communications, such as websites and social media platforms. This would require certain paid posts to disclose who funded them. The law already covers newspapers and other print media, television, and radio. The bill sponsors stressed that this measure was simply modernizing the law.
However, the bill debate revealed that the implications of this provision are largely unknown. Several representatives asked questions about the ramifications of this provision on specific circumstances, to which the bill sponsors could only give ambiguous answers.
For example, Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Pamlico) raised concerns about “boosted” posts on Facebook, which would meet the requirements outlined in the bill of being a paid service on a platform reaching more than 100,000 users. Speciale and others pointed out that social media is much more complex than some of the other forms of media currently regulated in the law.
Attempts at adding regulations to those platforms is sure to be problematic from an implementation standpoint. If members of the House committee on elections can’t even understand the bill, how could the average citizen be expected to know his/her responsibilities if the bill becomes law? This is important because violation of the law could result in a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Then there is the question of enforcement. How would the State Board of Elections police this new law? Just imagine the manpower it would take to monitor all of social media like Facebook, twitter and even paid Google ads for “electioneering” communications.
Besides its issues of practicality and implementation, this bill sets a dangerous precedent for the regulation of free speech in online platforms.
Bill sponsor Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) pointed out that the current version of the bill had been watered down from their original proposal. She stated that this was a “trial run” bill, that would reveal “what more we need to do for 2020.”
This comment raises a huge red flag, giving important insight into the plans of bill supporters going forward. If this bill passes, its advocates seem to have every intention of continuing to push the boundaries on the regulation of free speech. An inch given away from free speech can quickly turn into a mile.
–Article by Civitas Summer Fellow Leah Byers