California: Making ‘Misleading Political Statements’ Online Is Now Illegal

California cracks down on political speech online

Lawmakers in California are proposing a harsh new law that will make it illegal for anybody to operate a website that makes controversial political statements to the public. 

In a move designed to suppress free speech and eliminate independent media outlets, legislators claim they are attempting to tackle the problem of “fake news” with some of the harshest proposals by any government to-date.

The new bill will curb online media outlets from presenting political views that oppose the liberal consensus in the state, giving authorities the ability to arrest website owners and shut down servers.

Techdirt.com reports:

Ostensibly, the bill is aimed at keeping voters from being misled on issues that affect them. The problem is, this bill would allow the government to determine what is or isn’t misleading and apply to a citizen’s social media posts, blog, etc.

California’s existing “political cyberfraud” law (yes, really) already contains wording that forbids cybersquatting, misleading redirects, and otherwise tricking internet users who are seeking information on ballot measures. The existing law is more concerned with acts along the lines of false impersonation and deliberate fraud. The amendment, however, isn’t. It adds a couple of new aspects, both making the bad law worse.

First, the law would no longer be limited to “cyberfraud” related to pending ballot measures. It would expand to protect political candidates from being bested by wily web denizens. Where it really goes downhill is this new clause, which criminalizes even more speech.

SEC. 2.

Section 18320.5 is added to the Elections Code, to read:

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.

With this law, opinions and misinterpretations of ballot measures/candidates’ political stances are now illegal acts. The law goes further than simply punishing the writer of false statements. It also aims to punish publishers (which could be read as punishing hosts who would normally be protected by Section 230) and anyone who shares the newly-illegal content. If anything in the original post hints of political leaning, it can be construed as “designed to influence the vote,” which would make most heated political discussions a breeding ground for criminal communications.

It would seem the “victims” listed in the proposed amendment aren’t really in need of a free speech-abusing law. If California’s government doesn’t like the tone of online posts about ballot measures, it has plenty of opportunities (and numerous platforms) to set the record straight. Worse, it gives the government the power to shut down speech it doesn’t agree with under the pretense preventing voters from being misled.

As for political candidates, they rarely suffer the problem of having too little speech. Bullshit can be countered with more speech, a rhetorical weapon everyone has access to, but political candidates in particular tend to be especially well-equipped in this department.

How the original law managed to survive a constitutional challenge remains a mystery. This addition has zero chance of being found constitutional if it somehow manages to become law.