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Seacoast Media Opposes HB 1157

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

— First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Free speech and Liberty of the press are essential to the security of Freedom in a State: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.”

— Article 22, New Hampshire Constitution.

On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee will hold the first hearing on HB 1157: “An Act relative to liability of New Hampshire news media for failure to update stories on criminal proceedings.”

While we agree that it is ethical journalistic practice to update stories about criminal proceedings, the bill clearly violates the United States and New Hampshire constitutions and should therefore be rejected.

To our knowledge, the vast majority of professional news outlets in New Hampshire, including Seacoast Media Group, already voluntarily do what this bill seeks to compel through use of government force.

If a news outlet reports criminal charges against an individual and is then notified in writing that those charges were dropped, dismissed, resulted in a finding of not guilty or were subsequently annulled, every outlet in the state already either updates the full story or, in the case of police logs, attaches a note updating the case’s disposition.

HB 1157 seeks to compel the news media to take these actions and, if they fail to do so “shall result in the liability of the New Hampshire news media organization for any damages incurred by the person caused by such failure.”

Having conceded that news outlets should report the dispositions of criminal cases after reporting the initial charges, we strongly oppose this bill on the grounds that it violates constitutional press freedoms upheld time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court as well as state courts.

Controlling the press allows a government to control a people by allowing them to know only what the government wants them to know and preventing them from knowing what the government doesn’t want them to know. There is a reason why Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and thousands of other internet sites have been blocked by the so-called Great Firewall of China.

The founders of our state and nation explicitly included strong constitutional press protections. Having just thrown off the repressive yoke of Great Britain and its monarchy, they wanted to prevent the rise of a new tyrant and felt a free press was the best protection because an informed public would have the information it needed to hold government accountable. For this reason, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787: …“were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

A First Amendment case relevant to HB 1157, brought to the attention of the New Hampshire Press Association by Matthew Saldaña from the law firm Bernstein and Shur, is Miami Herald Pub. Co. v. Tornillo, 1974, in which the Supreme Court ruled a Florida law mandating that newspapers provide every political candidate a right to reply to negative articles in the paper, violated the First Amendment.

In the decision, Associate Justice Byron White wrote: ”…the balance struck by the First Amendment with respect to the press is that society must take the risk that occasionally debate on vital issues will not be comprehensive and that all viewpoints may not be expressed. The press would be unlicensesd because, in Jefferson’s words, (w)here the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.′ Any other accommodation — any other system that would supplant private control of the press with the heavy hand of government intrusion — would make the government the censor of what the people may read and know.”

While we agree that media outlets should voluntarily report on the final disposition of crime stories they have published, we do not believe the remedy is for the New Hampshire House to pass an unconstitutional law. The remedy is for publishers to do what is fair and right and for readers to hold them accountable when they fail to do so.

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