HELENA – Proposed legislation in Montana to restrict the news media’s publication of fatal accident photographs on social media until the victims’ next of kin is notified stalled Monday amid concerns that it would violate press freedom rights.
The Montana House Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 against the bill by Amanda Curtis of Butte, a state lawmaker who is seeking the Democratic nomination in a special election expected to be held later this year for the state’s only U.S. House seat.
The measure would have forced news organizations to delay posting photos that would have made it possible to identify the victim of a fatal accident on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, including pictures of the victims’ vehicles.
Photos published on news organization’s websites would not be restricted under the bill, and it would not have limited individuals from posting similar photos on their own social media.
Opponents of the measure, which included eight Democrats and four Republicans, said the bill clearly violates the First Amendment rights of freedom of the press.
“It’s not even close,” said Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula. “When this bill goes to court, it will be thrown out.”
The seven Republicans who voted in favor of the measure said they wanted it to pass, even if it is ultimately ruled unconstitutional.
“There needs to be some sideboards on media, if nothing else to teach them some common decency,” said committee chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield.
The committee tabled the bill, meaning it could be revived on the House floor, but that prospect is dim with a Wednesday deadline for non-revenue legislation to pass at least one chamber.
Maura Gruber, a Helena woman who learned that her boyfriend died last month by seeing a picture of his vehicle posted by a newspaper on Facebook, said she was extremely disappointed that the committee voted against the measure. She acknowledged the bill had constitutional questions but said she wanted to see it challenged in court to bring even more awareness to the issue.
Now, she said, she plans to directly speak to news organizations through the Montana Newspaper Association and the Montana Broadcasters Association.
“I would like to publicly request that the media refrain from posting these photos – without legislation – knowing the impact it has on families,” she said.
John MacDonald, a lobbyist for the Montana Newspaper Association and a former Associated Press editor, said the issues raised by the bill are a reminder that Montana, with its population of 1 million, can be a small community in a fast-moving news environment.
“It’s something newsrooms need to think about with their need to balance covering the news and who might see the photographs,” he said. “This should be a topic of discussion.”
But the proposed legislation was clearly unconstitutional, he added.
“There is no ambiguity whatsoever,” he said. “The government can’t censor the media.”
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