HELENA — The Montana House narrowly rejected Wednesday a measure that sought to prevent media outlets from reporting on news that lawmakers deem defamatory.
The “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act” closely resembles bills introduced in at least four other states, including Rhode Island, Maine, Mississippi and Tennessee. None have been signed into law.
Several Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting against the bill in a 48-52 split. The House can still attempt to revive the measure later this week.
The bill states it intends to prevent media outlets from acting as “slander machines” and carrying out reporting on cases and controversies that “cultivates false narratives.”
Under the bill, media outlets would have been required to remove mugshots from digital publications if the accused is acquitted. If media outlets that cover a court case fail to report on its final outcome, the defendant in the case would have been able to demand damages of $10,000 from the media outlet.
Supporters of the measure said it was not meant to silence the media, but rather to ensure that reporting on public figures does not stray from the truth.
“If you fabricate, if you maliciously come after somebody, if you falsely present, then we have a problem,” said Rep. Mark Noland (R-Bigfork), who sponsored the measure.
Opponents said they wished to protect the public debate fostered by a free media.
“We all recognize that politics is a contact sport and that in the give and take sometimes things happen that are painful. But that’s part of the public debate,” Democratic Rep. Tom France said.
A legal review of Montana’s bill prepared by legislative staff states that the measure could conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of the press.
The measure appears to originate from a group called Special Forces of Liberty. A video produced by the group and posted online states the goal of the legislation is to prevent “selective reporting” that casts elected officials in “false light.” The video lists as examples of such reporting the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump and the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
One of the men behind Special Forces of Liberty is Chris Sevier, who has a history of outlandish lawsuits and has pushed controversial state legislation.
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