No one disputes that police charged O.J. Simpson with murder in 1994. But if some North Carolina lawmakers have their way, we could really be in trouble for saying so.
Leaders in the state Senate are so fed up with crime tabloids and mugshot websites that they sneaked an amendment to criminal records laws into the proposed 2014-15 budget. It’s buried on the 210th page of a 275-page appropriations act, a legislative Trojan horse that its backers hoped would go unnoticed.
The amendment would require media outlets to issue retractions and purge from their public archives all reports of a person’s arrest if that person is later acquitted, if the charges are dismissed or if cases are resolved without a conviction.
The amendment begins by preventing websites and other media outlets that publish mugshots from charging a fee for removal in cases of an acquittal or dismissed charge. But it doesn’t stop there.
When an arrestee notifies a newspaper, television station or website that a charge no longer stands, the amendment states, its operators would have 15 days to remove “or retract if removal is not possible” the mugshot, name and charges. The state would slap those who don’t comply with a $100 fine each week, and after 45 days, the amendment says, the aggrieved arrestee can sue for defamation of character.
Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. A charge is simply a formal accusation brought by the government that requires a person to appear in court. Saying that someone has been charged with murder is not tantamount to calling him a killer.
When the media reports that police arrested a person and charged him or her with a crime, that fact remains true even if the charge is later dismissed, or, as in Simpson’s case, a jury finds the defendant not guilty. By punishing media outlets that don’t recant those facts on demand, lawmakers aren’t really setting the record straight. They’re seeking to rewrite history.
If this provision takes effect, our state will likely spend millions in taxpayer money fighting a losing battle against the First Amendment in federal court. Forcing a newspaper to delete a story from its website is censorship. Strong-arming it into publishing a retraction is government-compelled speech. Those values are more suited to North Korea than North Carolina.
Reputable publications that report arrests will publish follow-up stories when we’re notified of dismissals or acquittals. We do this because we believe it’s the right thing to do. We don’t need elected officials making our editorial decisions for us.
If the General Assembly is serious about protecting innocent people’s reputations, we suggest lawmakers worry less about mugshots that give the wrong impression and more about the justice system that’s producing them in the first place.