Press freedom advocates say a crackdown on mugshot websites slipped into North Carolina’s budget bill would trample First Amendment protections for all media in the state.
The 2014 Appropriations Act is headed to the state House after it passed the Senate on Friday. The budget boasts raises for teachers, but it cuts other areas of K-12 education and contains several stowaway provisions that seemingly have nothing to do with spending.
One provision, which North Carolina Press Association Executive Director Beth Grace calls a prior-restraint bill, is designed to protect people from mugshot websites that post arrestees’ names, photos and criminal charges. Many sites charge fees to remove the mugshots even when a defendant is found not guilty or charges are dropped.
Grace said the amendment is not specific enough and could limit newspapers and broadcast media that cover crime.
“There are a lot of things just hidden away in there,” Grace said. “Some others are publishing related, too. But this one — we consider it a gross violation of the Constitution. It’s a bad gateway bill, tailored after bills from other states. This has only succeeded in eight of those states. It violates First Amendment rights to free speech and the press.”
Once a person is charged with a crime, taken into custody and a mugshot is taken, that information is part of the public record and the media can report it. Grace said prior restraint comes into play when government penalizes the press for publishing specific kinds of information with the end result of discouraging publication.
The criminal records law amendment is on the 210th page of the 275-page budget and is drawing ire from free-speech advocates throughout the state. Critics cited this passage as the most troubling language:
“Any publisher of a print publication or operator of an Internet website that contains criminal record information of a person charged with a crime shall, within 15 days after written notification from the person or the person’s designee, remove, or retract if removal is not possible, criminal record information and any other personal information if the person is acquitted or the charges are dropped or otherwise resolved without a conviction.”
State Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, said it’s not uncommon for legislators to slip special provisions into budgets and other laws in order to get them passed without bringing them to committees for review.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to do, and even worse, why is it part of the budget?” Goodman said. “It shouldn’t be. There are special provisions, but they have to be related to spending. This is not. The reason they put it in the budget is so it won’t go to vote or committee. But doing things this way, I’m opposed to it. It ends up costing taxpayers money when these provisions ultimately end up in court. And if you’re going to write provisions, don’t hide them on page 210 of the budget.”
Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, shared Goodman’s view about procedural flaws.
“Unfortunately, this is what happens when a bill gets written and we have less than 48 hours to consider it,” McLaurin said. “It did not go before any committees. We got it late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning and were voting on it by Friday. This is what happened with Senate Bill 744. It moved too fast and didn’t get public input. I plan to find out what is really being said here and address the concerns of the press association, which I think are legitimate.”