A state lawmaker in Indiana has drafted a measure to require licenses for journalists akin to those that pertain to handgun owners, a proposal legal experts says directly violates the First Amendment.
The measure would require journalists — defined as anyone writing or broadcasting news for a newspaper, magazine, website or television or radio station — to be registered and fingerprinted by the police and vetted for their “character and reputation.”
State Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from the southeastern part of Indiana and a vocal critic of his state’s gun restrictions, drafted the bill by copying language from a state law that requires a license to carry a handgun in public.
With these laws proposed for journalists, Lucas's measure reads like satire.
Committing journalism without a license within 500 feet of school or on a school bus would bump the penalty up from a misdemeanor to a felony. Journalists with felony or domestic battery convictions would be prevented from getting licenses. And unlicensed people would still be able to engage in journalism on property they own or rent.
The proposal has not been submitted. And though Lucas says the measure was drafted in part to point out what he views as the hypocrisy of gun regulations, he would not rule out introducing the proposal in the state legislature in the future.
“I'm going to see,” he told The Washington Post on Friday.
First Amendment experts said the proposal — first reported by the Indianapolis Star — has no chance of surviving a court challenge, should it ever be introduced, then passed.
“It’s an absolute nonstarter,” said Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor and a civil liberties expert. “The whole reason for the free press clause was to abolish licensing rules for the press.”
Neuborne added: “Maybe we should license state legislators.”
Lucas's proposal comes amid heightened political tensions around the First Amendment.
President Trump, who has demonized the news media as “the enemy of the American People,” alarmed free-speech advocates this week by writing on Twitter that NBC News should be punished by regulators after the organization published a report that he did not like.
The comment drew rebukes from people across the political spectrum, including Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who implied in a tweet that he believed the president was violating his oath of office.
In the wake of Trump's election, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states introduced or voted on legislation to curb protests, in what critics said amounted to an attack on civil liberties. One bill proposed shielding drivers who hit protesters in the street from liability. Another sought to seize the assets of those who took part in protests that turned violent.
Conservatives have accused the left of shutting down planned speeches on college campuses and other public spaces throughout the year.
In Indiana, Lucas said the proposal to license journalists was drafted in January, as his frustration grew with local news coverage and editorials about a gun-rights bill he had introduced to eliminate the permits needed to carry handguns in public.
“I was ahead of Trump on this,” he said. “I thought fair play — if the media thinks we should license one constitutional right, then the same standards should be applied to them, especially when they misrepresent the truth.”
Lucas, a Marine veteran who describes himself as a “defender of the Constitution” on his Twitter page, was first elected to the statehouse in 2012. He has tried unsuccessfully to repeal gun restriction laws in his state for years.
“If we’re okay with someone getting a license to exercise their Second Amendment right, explain to me how that can’t be applied to other constitutional rights?” he said in a phone interview.
When asked about the extensive court rulings that inform the modern notion of a free press, Lucas said he does not believe legal precedence and case law are important.
“People can bring courts into it — that’s obfuscation,” he said. “The Constitution meant what it said and said what it said. But through the course of centuries, we have tolerated five men and women in robes telling us what those words mean.”
On Twitter, he has attacked journalists whose coverage he disagrees with, including a columnist who wrote critically — and, Lucas said, inaccurately — about his gun legislation.
As news of his journalism-license proposal began to circulate widely, Lucas took to Facebook, writing: “The irony is that every despotic government has employed speech and propaganda in their rise to tyranny while freedom fighters use guns to fight them.”
For all of his broadsides about the press, however, he was quick to return a reporter's phone call.