‘Disastrous for Free Speech': Lawmaker Pulls Bill to Ban Fake News

California Assemblyman Ed Chau abandons a bill that critics savaged

Last Updated: March 28, 2017 @ 4:51 PM

California lawmaker Ed Chau pulled a bill proposing to ban intentionally false stories about elections  after critics called it “disastrous for free speech.”

The Monterey Park Democrat’s Assembly Bill 1104 would have make it “unlawful” to publish any intentionally “false or deceptive statement designed to influence the vote” for public office or ballot measure – but only on websites.  

That means that intentionally false news stories about elections in old-fashioned tabloid newspapers or during television broadcasts would have escaped penalties under the law.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco civil liberties advocacy group, started a Twitter campaign attacking Chau’s bill, saying it would be “disastrous for free speech” and “obviously unconstitutional.”  The ACLU also opposes the bill.

“You can’t fight fake news with a bad law,” the EFF said in a written statement.

EFF’s investigative researcher Dave Maass told the Wrap: “Misleading statements have been part of politics since the very beginning of American politics and I don’t think a law in 2017 will change that.”

Chau was scheduled to introduce his bill at a hearing before the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Affairs today, but the bill was pulled from the hearing schedule. Chau’s office declined to comment to TheWrap.

Here is the text of A.B. 1104:

It is 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 the vote on either of the following:

(a) Any issue submitted to voters at an election.

(b) Any candidate for election to public office.

“It’s not clear what the penalties would be” for violating the law, Maass said.

California already has an obscure law banning fake news by candidates. According to Chau’s analysis of A.B. 1104, anyone who wins an election by lying about their opponent must forfeit public office if they are sued for defamation and “the libel or slander was a major contributing cause in the defeat of the opposing candidate, and the statement was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or true.”

That little-known provision in California Constitution, Article VII, Section 10, is probably unconstitutional because it violates the right of free speech of candidates, EFF said.

EFF said in its opposition letter to the bill that plenty of candidates – not just websites – make false statements about each other.  The EFF wrote: “During the 2016 campaign alone, PolitiFact ranked 202 statements made by President Donald Trump as mostly false or false statements and 63 “Pants on Fire” statements. Hillary Clinton made 69 statements ranked mostly false or false and seven as “Pants on Fire.”