Legislators consider bill requiring news outlets to update crime stories

  • Jack Flanagan, a Brookline Republican, testifies Wednesday about a bill he sponsored that would require news outlets to update all online articles about people in the judicial system if they were acquitted, found not guilty, or had their charges dropped. Phil Kincade—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2020 5:21:21 PM

Publicity comes part and parcel with most major arrests: a mug shot, a press release, and an article in the newspaper or a report on the nightly news.

But in the age of the internet, that article has an enduring shelf-life a lot longer than decades ago. For those whose charges are dropped or are later exonerated, that arrest can live forever in Google search results.

This year, one representative is trying to legislate a change to that scenario. A bill by Jack Flanagan, a Brookline Republican, would require news outlets to update all online articles about people in the judicial system if they were acquitted, found not guilty, or had their charges dropped.

That update would need to be made “following written notification” by the person in the criminal proceeding.

Not complying would make the outlets liable for all damages suffered by the person as a result of the lack of an update, the bill states.

Flanagan said the legislation, House Bill 1157, is meant to keep media outlets accountable to members of the public who could see employment or housing opportunities affected by incomplete articles about arrests.

“What this bill is basically saying is ‘I want the complete story,’ ” he said. “... We’re dealing with a different animal now, and that’s the internet.”

Media groups pushed back against the bill, calling it an unconstitutional restriction of free speech riddled with logistical hurdles.

Scott Spradling, a lobbyist and former television reporter representing the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, said the bill would impinge on free speech rights of news outlets when it comes to running articles. And he said that by requiring news outlets to immediately change the articles upon request, it would force them to print information without getting verification from the courts.

“We can understand and certainly sympathize that the power of the press certainly can impact lives of those in this room and throughout the great state of New Hampshire,” he said. “We in the media take our responsibility seriously in our efforts to inform and to educate the public. ... There are avenues for the public to ask for corrections and updates.”

Representatives of other media outlets, such as the Union Leader, presented similar testimony.

Many said that their newsrooms already take pains to stay on top of criminal cases and to publish new ones when developments happen.

Legal organizations took issue with the bill as well.

Former Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas wrote a letter opposing the bill on behalf of the New Hampshire Association for Justice, a professional association of trial attorneys.

Douglas argued that the bill contravened the First Amendment – which broadly does not allow the government to impose conditions on news organizations.

The 1974 Supreme Court case of Miami Herald Publishing Company v. Tornillo established that state law cannot require that newspapers and other outlets include certain content. “Press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and ... cannot be legislated,” the court held.

Douglas said the same logic applied to Flanagan’s New Hampshire bill as well.

“There is no way the news media can be required under the First Amendment right of free press to find out what happened to every arrest and then publish it or be sued,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire has also opposed the proposed law.

According to Flanagan, the bill was not meant to infringe on the media.

“I actually have a lot of respect for the press,” he said, citing what he said was a positive experience when he ran for Congress in 2016.

But he said he had heard from constituents upset with how their cases have been covered.

“When someone makes an accusation of you and you’re arrested, its certainly going to make the news,” he said. “And you want to make sure that the story is updated.”

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