When we elect legislators in Montana, we tend to think the legislators are going to work for us crafting legislation that is made in Montana, by Montanans, for Montana. Sadly, that’s not what is happening. Lobbyists and special interest groups craft the legislation, feed it to legislators, and often without even researching the bill’s applicability in Montana, the legislators sponsor the bill. And then, the lobbyists craft the talking points for the legislators to use when promoting the bill. They are in every sense of the words “puppet masters” of the Legislature. We still have some true Montana legislators who aren’t shills for out-of-state special interest lobbyists, but sadly the elected seats held by them continue to dwindle.
For example, look at Rep. Mark Noland’s HB 711, “The Stop Guilt By Accusation Act.” Sounds compelling, right? It’s the latest attempt to force media to behave “responsibly,” although what is considered “responsible” is undefined. We all agree that the proliferation of “fake news” is a scourge on our society. Trying to separate the quality and accurate content from the “fake” is becoming more difficult as anyone can become a “news” source. The problem exists. The solution, at least in Montana, also exists.
Rep. Noland didn’t bother to do his research when he chose to sponsor HB 711. Nor did he consult the Constitution. He merely forwarded the content to staff when the drafter John Gunter of the “Special Forces of Liberty/De Facto Attorneys General” emailed the bill language to Rep. Noland. Montana media tried to speak to the “man behind the curtain,” Mr. Gunter, to determine why he thought the bill was needed in Montana. Mr. Gunter has, to date, declined all media requests. Ahh, transparency at its finest. His fear of “fake news” must be crippling.
Montana law already addresses the concerns raised by HB 711; defamation by anyone – including the press – is a crime punishable by jail. Defamation is also a civil claim; if Rep. Noland paid attention locally, he would have recognized in 2008 the Gardner family successfully sued John Stokes, a former local radio “news source,” for defamation in his “[fake] news reporting.” The Gardners’ $3.8 million verdict cleared their good name. Montana doesn’t need Mr. Gunter’s bill — a bill that is prepackaged for use in states nationwide, as evidenced by his use of the perjury definition found in Federal law, not Montana law.
The bill passed out of committee. Since Montana foots the bill for legislator salaries, “Special Forces of Liberty” got a bargain schlepping its unnecessary legislation in Montana. They hoped none of us would be the wiser and Rep. Noland would appear to us to be a “truth warrior.” Ironically, the label “warrior” couldn’t be further from the truth.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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