New Hampshire bill would force news outlets to update crime stories

(Photo: AlexiusHoratius via Wikimedia Commons)

A New Hampshire lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require news organizations to update stories on criminal defendants if they are acquitted.

The measure, House Bill 1157, would force news organizations to update online articles about criminal proceedings to “update, retract or correct” information about criminal defendants “following an acquittal, dismissal, or finding of not guilty.”

Nothing in the bill allows state officials to bring an action against a news organization that fails to update an online story after an individual is cleared of wrongdoing, and there are no criminal penalties for editors who refuse to amend a story post-publication. But it would allow the subjects of stories to bring their own civil lawsuits against news organizations that don’t update articles.

Rep. Jack Flanagan, the lawmaker who proposed the measure, told a local news outlet his intention was not to protect guilty individuals, but require news organizations to tell “the full story.” He said he proposed the measure based on the damage a news story found through a Google search can have, even if the person is later cleared of wrongdoing.

The New Hampshire Press Association and several newspapers operating in the state have come out against the proposed legislation, saying the measure is “pretty unconstitutional.”

“Courts have ruled government cannot compel (the press) to print anything,” Phil Kincade, the executive director of the New Hampshire Press Association, told the North Andover Eagle-Tribune, a newspaper based in Massachusetts that has a large readership in neighboring New Hampshire.

Kincade said he felt newspaper editors would happily update online articles if presented with evidence that a person was not convicted of their charges, and there is evidence to support this position. Less clear is whether newspapers have the legal ability to publish whatever they want, especially if it can be proven to be harmful to a person’s reputation.

This is at the crux of Flanagan’s measure, he says, which would require nothing more than an editor affixing a short note to the top of a story saying a person had been cleared of criminal wrongdoing if that person presents a news organization with evidence supporting that claim.

Flanagan said he’s heard from at least one person who had varying degrees of success getting news organizations to update articles.

“They went through and had the case dismissed, and they were exonerated,” Flanagan said. “One (newspaper) ran another story, and one didn’t do anything.”

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