Montana lawmakers on Friday listened to emotional testimony as a House committee considered a proposal that would prohibit news organizations in the state from publishing photos of fatal accident scenes on social media before officials notify next of kin.
During the hearing on House Bill 553, Maura Gruber struggled through tears as she told the House Judiciary Committee that she had learned of her boyfriend’s death in a car accident earlier this year after seeing a picture of the crash scene posted online by a local newspaper.
“The pictures posted with the story made it easy to identify that it was Chris’ car, overturned on the side of the highway and his belongings strewn across the ground. The article indicated that the driver of the car was killed,” she said. “... A million emotions came over me as friends and family were texting me and sending Facebook messages wanting to know if that was Chris. None of his immediate family had been notified, yet friends and strangers were aware of his passing.”
Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte, is sponsoring House Bill 553 to curtail publication of fatal accident-scene photos. Also testifying in support of Curtis’ bill was Brandi Stevens, who recounted a similar story from 2015, when she said she learned of her sister’s death in an auto accident when photos were published by a local TV station.
“A truck pulling a large camper hit the side of her car with such force that the driver’s side was ripped away from the rest of her vehicle, the frame bent irreparably and the windshield folded like fabric and shattered in places. It’s a really vivid image to have burned into my head forever,” Stevens said.
She saw the photo on social media before her family had been notified, she said.
Newspapers and other media outlets generally withhold sensitive details from stories based on industry-wide ethical guidelines, including information that could identify the victims of fatalities before officials have notified the deceased’s next of kin.
Representing the Montana Newspaper Association, John MacDonald noted that those guidelines are not codified in law, but are considered standard practice within the industry. He referred to U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have consistently ruled against “prior restraint” — policies that seek to place limits on press freedoms — in favor of the First Amendment’s free-press protections.
“The fact is that prior restraint cases throughout 70 years of court case law have said that telling a newspaper or telling a broadcaster when you can publish something is the same as telling them you can’t publish it,” he said.
However, MacDonald also acknowledged the potential for news outlets to make mistakes and judgment errors.
“There’s always going to be differences between news organizations and what they are going to determine is, from their point of view, what is appropriate to print versus what is not appropriate to print,” MacDonald said. “... I believe in Montana, the vast majority of news organizations are very careful in what they will print, including not printing any photos that are going to have identifiable information and obviously there are going to be exceptions to that.”
The Montana Broadcasters Association and the American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the bill. S.K. Rossi, with the ACLU, fought back tears as she told the committee her organization was obligated to “defend the rights of the press regardless of the content.”
Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, noted that Curtis’ bill referred only to a delay in publication, and suggested that a news organizations’ rush to publish information may not be included within the press’ constitutional freedoms.
Rossi responded that the only exceptions the courts have previously allowed related specifically to narrow national-security issues.
“The response to speech or press coverage that you find offensive is more speech,” she said. “If you’re upset about the way it impacted your family, you should use your voice to protest the behavior that caused that, not the Constitution that protects it.”
While Curtis noted that her proposal would extend into a legal “gray area” pitting constitutional protections for the press against an individual’s rights to privacy, she urged the House panel to support the bill as common-sense policy, and leave the courts to decide on its constitutionality.
“I’ve brought this bill to you because I absolutely believe in the legislative process and our ability to set policy,” she said. “Diagnoses like PTSD remain with a person for a very long time and those are the stakes that we’re talking about here.”
The committee will likely vote on the bill Monday morning, when it holds its final meeting before the House’s deadline to pass bills to the Senate.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.