A bill in the N.H. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee seeks to undo — or un-see — news that has happened.
House Bill 1157, a proposed amendment to RSA 507, which governs legal actions and processes, wants to add a liability section forcing New Hampshire news media to “update, retract or correct” digital news stories about crimes in which the person charged is later found not guilty or charges dropped. The concern is obvious: Because the Internet and news websites keep almost everything and index content for searching, a story about charges brought against someone that is not also accompanied by an update reporting a non-guilty finding leaves the individual impacted in all manner of ways, from personal relationships to employment.
We get that.
But speaking for ourselves, major criminal cases we choose to follow include stories from the time of the charge to the disposition. So, there’s a story about a crime and allegations made, probably an update or two along the way and, finally, a verdict. If the verdict is not guilty, there’s a story.
Our policy is also, if we are made aware and written proof is provided, to affix an editor’s note to stories preceding the verdict and stating that a not-guilty finding was made. That may not be what all news organizations do; we don’t know. But we want an accurate record of such cases, and we’ll accommodate those who request it, so long as the information they provide us is true and can be verified.
What Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Hollis, the sponsor of the bill, no doubt endeavors to make law is an update to the original story and presumably any subsequent story leading to the final disposition of the case.
Or a retraction.
Or a correction.
Let’s look at the latter two options.
A correction should not be required nor necessary. News happens in increments. The arrest. The updates. The verdict. Changing any of those stories is messing with history, the First Amendment and a news organization’s right to fairly report the news as it occurs. It is not incorrect to publish accounts of the original charge or proceedings thereafter.
A retraction, for even stronger reasons, would be wrong. That would be saying to a reader or viewer: “Forget about what you read in the past; it never happened.”
Put starkly, does O.J. Simpson’s acquittal of murder charges make the prior news reports of his arrest and his trial any less correct or mean that they never occurred?
If alerted and proof provided, we are not opposed to adding some form of editor’s note to stories associated with a case, which says a not-guilty verdict was found. Tarring someone for a crime in which they were not convicted is unfair. But the government can’t be regulating and penalizing a failure to do so. That’s a clear violation of free speech.
Before the Internet made it easy to Google someone and learn about that person’s background, someone found not guilty of a crime would typically have the satisfaction of being able to read or view that favorable outcome in his or her local media. Stories about the case were relegated to microfilm, libraries or newspaper and video morgues. The past was the past.
Not so today. One’s deeds — even when charges are dropped in criminal matters — live in perpetuity online. The search engine behemoths merrily carry on, indexing these stories — and not always completely, by the way — under the cover of being aggregators and not publishers. The next time a search engine company is held accountable for having an incomplete record of a criminal case will be the first time. It’s easier for legislators to target news organizations.
The other flaw in Flanagan’s bill is that this would apply only to New Hampshire media. So, presumably, it would be OK for a Boston television station to report online on charges made against a New Hampshire person — and not provide an update on dismissed charges — but not so for WMUR.
If news organizations are not being responsive to people who have had criminal charges dismissed and who, with proof, request an updated record, they should. That’s not only fair, it’s also more accurate. But pretending the person was never accused or charged at all does not reflect reality.
The state government needs to stay away from making it a law and infringing on people’s right to know the full story.