Whitesburg KY
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Ill-advised attempt to censor press

Press freedom and informed citizenship go hand in hand.

This sacred right is guaranteed to all citizens under the First Amendment to the Constitution. As a country, we are a better place because the press enjoys protection.

Newspapers also enjoy First Amendment protections. Our job is to gather and accurately report news stories that inform the public. Some of our reporting might offend people at times, and that is OK as long as we did our fact checking and published news stories in the sincere pursuit of the public’s right to know.

There seems to be a misunderstanding as of late about newspapers and their roles in the communities they serve. There also seems to be anger amongst some legislators in Frankfort, mainly Republicans, about newspapers, since they have introduced several pieces of legislation this year that are unfriendly to newspapers.

One such piece of legislation is House Bill 174, which would prohibit the media from obtaining through the Open Records Act “photographs or videos prepared, owned, used, possessed, or retained by public agencies that depict a person’s death, killing, rape, or physical or sexual assault or abuse.” The proposed law would even include images introduced in open court and would be retroactively effective.

The bill was adjusted Thursday by its sponsor to eliminate its original call to also prohibit dissemination of “gruesome” images, an overly broad description that would have almost certainly resulted in continual disputes over the definition of “gruesome.”

Disappointingly, though, the remainder of the bill easily cleared the House State Government Committee.

For decades, newspapers and the news media have had access to such images. Whether or not a media outlet ultimately chooses to publish such images, having access to them is a key component in the information-gathering process. As a general practice, most papers – including this one – strive to avoid publishing images that clearly show dead bodies, although in certain cases the decision to do so is carefully made, not for salacious reasons but because the images, though difficult to see, serve the public interest. Meanwhile, while it is hard to imagine any reason why any legitimate news organization would find it appropriate to publish images depicting the act of rape or sexual assault, if such images are in the possession of government agencies, there are scenarios in which viewing them, but not publishing them, will help a reporter deliver important news accurately to the public.

In other words, this newspaper – like most professional media outlets – tries to operate within the bounds of good judgment and restraint. This newspaper, for example, does not report when someone takes his or her own life – with some rare exceptions, such as suicides that occur in view of the public. Nor do we use the names or photos of rape victims, though exceptions might be made when the victim wishes to go public with the story.

HB 174 is just one more example of government trying to censor the media. This horrible piece of legislation even goes so far as to say that the media would not be granted access to images shown during a public criminal or civil trial.

It is worth noting that the two sponsors of this bill are Republicans: state Rep. Chris Freeland, R-Benton, and state Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville. We’re a bit confused here, because we thought Republicans were for transparency and less government intrusion into our lives.

We guess we were sorely mistaken.

This ill-advised bill is an attempt to infringe on a free press and to suppress free speech. We don’t believe the proposal is constitutional, as the Kentucky Press Association’s general counsel Michael Abate told the House State Government Committee during testimony against the bill. Abate cited extensive case law to support this position.

We also wonder if such a law could ultimately be used to prohibit public access to police body-camera footage in the event of officer-involved shootings, which, frankly, would significantly undercut the purpose of the body cams.

We applaud the KPA for fighting this very bad piece of legislation and are hopeful that this bill does not become law. If it does, we are confident the state Supreme Court would see that this is an infringement on the press and the First Amendment and rule it unconstitutional.

Quoting Abate: “HB 174 is unconstitutionally broad, contrary to the public interest and departs from the strong tradition of transparency codified in the Open Records Act.”

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