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Bad bill assaults the First Amendment

by Daily Inter Lake
| April 11, 2021 12:00 AM

Montana lawmakers last week debated and ultimately voted down the unconstitutional “Stop Guilt By Accusation Act” that unfairly reduced Montana media outlets to “slander machines.”

The boilerplate bill (Montana House rejects bill calling media ‘slander machines’, Daily Inter Lake, April 7) sponsored by Bigfork Republican Rep. Mark Noland attempted to dictate how the press should cover the news, going as far as laying out requirements for how, when and where a media outlet displays a particular report. Essentially, the bill would have inserted the government into Montana’s newsrooms.

The Montana House narrowly rejected the bill thanks to several measured Republicans, like Kalispell Rep. Frank Garner, who recognized the legislation was flagrant governmental overreach.

A legal analysis of the bill noted as much, pointing out that it would violate First Amendment protections of a free press. Had it passed, the legal challenges would have stacked up swiftly.

“For me, on the balance, I have to err on the side of the First Amendment,” Garner said in voting against the bill that failed in a 48-52 vote. Similar bills using the same pre-package language have been introduced in Rhode Island, Maine, Mississippi and Tennessee. None have been signed into law — for good reason.

Yet, like Rep. Garner, we do understand the spirit of the legislation, which proponents said was intended to ensure that reporting on public figures does not stray from the truth and that coverage of criminal cases doesn’t begin and end with the initial arrest.

If Rep. Noland would have reached out to the editorial board of his local daily newspaper, he would have learned about processes that are already in place to address those concerns.

Like most statewide media outlets, this newspaper frequently covers court cases of community interest, beginning with the initial incident and following through to the final sentencing. Charges are established by law enforcement and justice is played out in the court of law – proceedings that are all a part of public record.

On the rare occasion that a final outcome isn’t reported, the Daily Inter Lake will update the archives when notified by the accused. It’s simply the right thing to do.

And we agree, the media should do its best to cover the news of the day — politics, courts or otherwise — fairly, accurately and thoroughly. Journalistic integrity is paramount in retaining public trust, and it’s something this newspaper takes very seriously.

Yet, there's no denying that Noland’s bill presented blatant governmental interference in a free press. Without the constitutional protections of free speech and a free press, this editorial and the letters to the editor that appear on the opinion page would not be possible. And your favorite cable news outlet or political blog? Forget about it.

Any infringement on the rights established by the First Amendment can’t be tolerated. Noland’s bill belongs in the dust bin of the 2021 Legislature and it should stay there.