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House committee passes bill to regulate media coverage in Montana
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House committee passes bill to regulate media coverage in Montana

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A House panel voted Thursday to approve a bill to regulate media outlets operating in Montana, including social media, by compelling them to publish the resolution of court cases with equal placement, "magnitude, prominence, scale and manner" as prior coverage of the case.

House Bill 711, sponsored by Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, would also give a defendant's representatives the ability to demand that media outlets “take down any unflattering pictures” or mugshots that were previously published. If media outlets fail to comply within 10 days, the requester could seek $10,000, plus attorney’s fees and other damages, from the outlets.

“They’ll have to retract, they’ll have to make amends in print for the same amount of time they abuse somebody, per se, with false statements once it’s proved that they were false, then they have to rescind that,” Noland said. “… if they put it in the paper five days, it’s got to run five days of rebuttal, with the correct statements.”

No one testified to speak in favor of or against the bill.

A legal note to the bill, written by the Legislative Services Division, said the government compelling the press to cover events in a certain way could violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has previously determined that statutory requirements to publish specific information were unconstitutional," the legal note states, citing a high court ruling that struck down a similar law in Florida "because of its intrusion into the function of editors."

Noland argued that his measure doesn’t infringe on press freedoms, but that it still stops media outlets from damaging people’s reputations by printing stories that depict them in a negative light when they’ve been accused of a crime.

“I want the media just to be telling the truth,” he said.

Noland didn’t offer any specific instances of the types of reputation damage he said his bill would prevent.

Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, noted that in some European countries, people can call a hotline to report what they consider unethical media coverage.

“I just think this bill doesn’t go far enough,” she said.

The bill passed the committee on a party-line vote, 11-7, with Republicans voting in favor of it and Democrats voting against it.

Also Thursday, some House Democrats joined with Republicans to pass a law that would allow police departments and sheriff's offices to charge $100 for each mugshot supplied to the public, while also clarifying that mugshots are public information.

House Bill 665, brought by Republican Rep. Brandon Ler, of Savage, would give those law enforcement agencies the discretion over which suspects to charge for when a newspaper or other outlet asks for a mugshot.

"I believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and by putting these mugshots in the paper or on the internet, that it could ruin a person's livelihood, ruin their reputation," Ler said.

Mugshots would be available without a fee if the person is convicted.

A day earlier, the bill had also won the support of the Montana County Attorney's Association for adding more clarity to the definitions of public versus confidential criminal justice information. When a similar bill was introduced in 2017, without the ability to charge for mugshots, police chiefs had also supported the idea, noting that mugshots published in media outlets have sometimes prompted other victims of the suspects to come forward.

Representing the Montana Broadcasters Association, Ronda Wiggers had noted that the bill could result in unequal applications of the law.

"Do we release the shots when it's the mayor's kid, or not?" she asked the committee. "This is public information. It needs to be disseminated to the public without the fee."

There was no discussion of the bill on the House floor. It passed 79-21.

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