HELENA — The Montana House Wednesday narrowly rejected a bill that sought to mandate the media do follow-up reporting on cases where someone had been accused of wrongdoing and later exonerated.
The House defeated the bill on a 48-52 vote, after opponents said it clearly violates First Amendment protections for the press and is not necessary.
“This is perhaps one of the worst bills of the session, and that’s saying a lot,” said Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, and a former television reporter. “Our (media) has saved our democracy throughout our history, and this flies in the face of that. Vote no.”
Nineteen Republicans joined all 33 of the chamber’s Democrats in opposing House Bill 711, which was sponsored by Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork.
Noland said his bill is merely trying to make the media more accountable, and that they wouldn’t have any problem with the law if they report the truth.
“If you fabricate, or if you maliciously come after somebody, if you falsely present, then we’ve got a problem,” he said.
HB711 required media that covered a criminal case, civil case, ethics complaint or other action against someone to provide “equal coverage” when the accused person had been found not to have done what they were accused of.
If the accused person sent a request to the media outlet for the follow-up coverage, and the outlet did not comply, the accused person could sue and get damages.
Most of Wednesday’s debate did not actually discuss the contents of the bill, instead centering on complaints about the media and their coverage.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said negative media coverage was discouraging good people from running for political office.
“What this bill is about is when somebody in the press prints something that is false, in order to put a hand or a foot on the scale to affect a political outcome,” he said.
Opponents said if someone doesn’t like coverage they’ve received, they can go to the media and ask to tell their side of the story, rather than mandating it.
They also said HB711 is another bill that would likely end up in court, challenged as unconstitutional, costing the state and the taxpayers money.