PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Four Senate Democrats have quickly disavowed legislation they introduced which would restrict Rhode Island news outlets’ freedom to report stories, calling it the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act.”
Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, and three colleagues filed the legislation Wednesday. A summary says it “would preclude the media from engaging in defamation in-kind through selective reporting on cases and controversies that cultivate false narratives.”
The legislation lays out detailed steps that the government would require news outlets to take in reporting on “spurious cases and controversies,” as the bill puts it. It also specifies fines and other penalties for violations. However, if an organization “admits that it is a fake news outlet,” it will be “immune and exempt from liability.”
The measure — which immediately raised constitutional concerns under the First Amendment — advances this argument as to why the proposed restrictions are acceptable: “The state has a compelling interest to compel the press to promote the truth because without truth, there is no freedom – freedom comes from the truth.”
Senate spokesperson Greg Pare said Cano only introduced the bill at the request of Rep. Grace Diaz, a Providence Democrat who is the second-ranking leader of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Providence Journal reporter Patrick Anderson and local writer Samuel Howard quickly tracked down what appears to be the genesis of the bill: a man named Chris Sevier who has pushed a similar measure in other states such as Mississippi.
Cano partly defended the bill on Twitter, laying out the reasoning Diaz gave her.
“Being charged with a crime is a serious, potentially life-altering matter,” she wrote. “When people are accused of a crime they are often thrust into the media spotlight. However, if they are later found to be not guilty of the charges, there is never any follow up clarification. This is unfair.” (The bill as written is not limited to criminal cases; it also includes other proceedings such as Ethics Commission and civil cases.)
“While I agree with the reasoning,” Cano said, “I understand that the language in this proposed legislation goes too far and, therefore, I am withdrawing this bill.”
Pare said he did not know which member of the General Assembly’s staff of full- and part-time lawyers wrote the legislative language but would “inquire.” (Howard flagged that the bill misspells the phrase “press corps” as “press core.”)
Press freedom advocates expressed shock that legislators would even contemplate such an aggressive move.
“The fact that this bill — which would be damaging beyond any comprehension — was even introduced is both laughable and frightening,” said James Bessette, an editor at Providence Business News who is president of the Rhode Island Press Association.
Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, called the bill “unwise and unconstitutional.” (WPRI 12 reporter Tim White serves on the coalition’s board.)
“The First Amendment prevents government from taking over the editorial function of a newsroom and dictating how public issues are covered,” he said in a statement. “As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in very clear terms, a responsible press is a desirable goal but press responsibility, like many other virtues, cannot be legislated. And for good reason.”
“This type of legislation would turn newsrooms into an arm of the judicial system and ultimately discourage crime reporting altogether for fear of liability,” he said.
Steve Frias, a prominent local Republican attorney and historian, added: “Probably the worst anti-press bill in Rhode Island legislative history, and there have been a number of them.”
Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, a Central Falls Democrat who is the second sponsor of the bill, emphasized Thursday that it didn’t originate with her. She said the idea was presented to her as a way to protect people who had been accused but not found guilty.
Crowley said she is withdrawing her support for the bill. “I don’t think we were looking at it any way to be prohibitive to the media,” she said.
The other two co-sponsors are Sen. Ana Quezada and Harold Metts, both Providence Democrats.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman and Steph Machado contributed to this report.