Ill-conceived bill points to deeper issues

Posted 3/10/20

It was dubbed the "e;Stop Guilt by Accusation Act"e; - a piece of legislation submitted at the General Assembly by a group of four state senators. The response was swift, particularly on Twitter, from local members of the media. "e;I have no words,"e; Linda

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Ill-conceived bill points to deeper issues


It was dubbed the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act” – a piece of legislation submitted at the General Assembly by a group of four state senators.

The response was swift, particularly on Twitter, from local members of the media.

“I have no words,” Linda Lortridge Levin, professor emerita of journalism at the University of Rhode Island, wrote in an email to members of the Rhode Island Press Association alerting them to the introduction of the legislation.

We second that sentiment, and we thank all of our colleagues in local media – as well as other concerned citizens – for speaking out so quickly and strongly against this horrendous proposal, which was quickly withdrawn from consideration.

We write in an effort to bring this episode to the attention of those who are not closely attuned to social media or who might have missed coverage amid the growing coronavirus concerns last week. Despite the bill’s withdrawal, we believe its very introduction speaks to deeper issues regarding the way our state government often operates.

The bill, as it was introduced, essentially seeks to dictate how media outlets cover criminal and civil court proceedings. It would make outlets subject to various penalties – including $10,000 “statutory damages,” as well as “actual damages” and “other forms of equitable and injunctive relief” – for failure to comply with demands for so-called “equal coverage” of favorable outcomes from those victimized by what is defined as an “abuse of process.”

We feel it is important to provide the following passage from the bill’s introduction in its entirety:

“There has been a growing trend for individuals to abuse process and maliciously prosecute someone they disagree with ideologically by filing spurious cases and controversies in various government venues for ulterior motives, knowing that certain segments of the media that align with their ideology would serve as an accomplice by engaging in a form of defamation in-kind by selectively reporting on the facts of the original case but not on the actual outcome in actions where the petitioner received less relief than originally sought, which cultivates an unjust prejudicial conviction in the court of public opinion causing the accused to be shunned, avoided, and marginalized and the media outlet guilty of defamation in-kind to the point that it unduly decreases the quality of life for the accused.”

If that paranoid and poorly constructed passage – at once mind-numbing and deeply alarming – is not enough, the bill continues shortly thereafter: “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.”

The bill does outline some exemptions to its provisions – most astonishingly if an outlet “is known to publish satire or parody or admits that it is a fake news outlet.” Regardless, of course, its terms so blatantly violate the First Amendment that one might be forgiven for thinking it was a prank or a piece of satire itself.

Our understanding is that the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Sandra Cano of Pawtucket, introduced it in the Senate at the request of Rep. Grace Diaz of Providence. Additional reporting has traced the proposal’s origins to a man who has pushed for similar legislation in other states, including Mississippi.

Even the most charitable interpretation of the chain of events that led to this bill’s introduction speaks to deep, ongoing flaws in the way business is often conducted on Smith Hill. Far too often, bills are not read or reviewed in any meaningful way. Instead, when it comes to actually legislating, we repeatedly see lawmakers taking directives from leadership or doing favors for friends.

Rhode Islanders would be wise to consider ways in which the General Assembly might be reformed. We have long believed a smaller, full-time legislature would produce better governance.

The will to make such drastic changes, of course, is unlikely to materialize anytime soon. But when business as usual results in the introduction measures like the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act,” something is clearly very much awry.

The next time such a measure arrives at the General Assembly’s doorstop – perhaps targeting another industry or group – we hope the outcry is just as swift. We hope any such bill will be thwarted before it can advance out of committee or to the floor, driven by lawmakers’ misguided sense of collegiality or uncritical fealty to leadership.

And it will be our state’s hard-working and dedicated press corps there to document it all, every step of the way.


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