Bill aimed at clamping down on press coverage of court controversies fails in House

‘This does strike at the First Amendment and the right of free speech’

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A contingent of Republican moderates joined with Democrats Wednesday to vote down legislation that would have created certain requirements for media coverage of court cases and criminal trials following debate on the extent of the First Amendment’s protections for statements in the press that are not entirely accurate.

House Bill 711, sponsored by Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, failed on a tight 48-52 vote on second reading, with several Republicans affiliated with the so-called Solutions Caucus voting down the bill. The bill arises from a sense of grievance among conservative lawmakers over feeling misrepresented or taken advantage of by the press.

“Maybe you know somebody that was potentially abused by the media,” Noland said. “If you’re never had this issue in your life — wow, where are you living?”

“(The bill) does strike at the First Amendment and the right of free speech,” said Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, who along with the rest of his caucus voted against the bill. “I feel the representative’s pain in bringing this bill, but I would say to this body that we are all public figures. We all recognize that politics is a contact sport. In the give-and-take, sometimes things happen that are painful, but that’s part of public debate.”

Noland presented his bill as a way of “helping the press do the right thing,” compelling the media, in a sense, to cover a “case” or “controversy” in a certain way.

If it goes to court, if you have a ruling, and the court rules that you were maliciously accosting someone or falsely identifying something, you have to make amends,” Noland said. 

In short, the bill would have required a media outlet to publish additional reporting on an event — especially a legal case — under certain conditions: if the final verdict of a case that the media has covered “provided less relief against the accused than originally sought by the petitioner” and if the accused or subject of the controversy sends notice to the outlet in question within 20 days of the outcome demanding that the final verdict be reported.

The proposal would have also allowed the accused to demand that a media outlet remove their posted mug shot if they were acquitted. Many news organizations have moved away from publishing mugshots, though the practice still persists in general.

The organization would be held liable for up to $10,000 and other damages if they did not comply in 10 days.

Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, explained his support for the bill by pointing to press coverage around the murder of his sister decades ago.

“In 1982, my sister was murdered brutally. It was a hard ordeal,” Galloway said. “The press oftentimes edited statements, made misstatements, and took advantage of a grievous situation … to get headlines. We’ve had people talking about truth — well, take time to get the truth.”

The bill’s language came from an opaque outside group called Special Forces of Liberty/De Facto Attorneys General, according to drafting correspondence previously reported by the Daily Montanan. 

“This bill promotes truth in reporting and restricts the fake news media from engaging in defamation in-kind,” a representative from the group, John Gunter, wrote in an email to Noland asking for a vehicle to carry the language in February.

Opponents to the bill warned that it could easily lead to legal trouble for the Legislature on the backs of taxpayers. They cited Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, a U.S. Supreme Court Case overturning a Florida law requiring equal space for political candidates in the newspaper, among other legal precedent stopping the government from restricting or compelling speech in the media.

Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, said this is just one of several bills this session to carry substantial support that she believes are unconstitutional. 

When is this going to end?” she asked. 

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, was one of several Republicans who voted against the bill.

“I agree with the arguments that many of the proponents made, I do think there have been some egregious errors,” Garner said. “But for me, on the balance, I have to err on the side of the First Amendment.”