Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, seen in this 2019 file photo, is sponsoring a bill that would force media outlets to cover the outcomes of court proceedings or remove mugshots from articles in certain cases or face civil penalties. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of Republicans in the Maine Legislature is backing a bill that would force media outlets to cover the outcomes of court proceedings or remove mugshots from articles in certain cases or face civil penalties.

The bill, called the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act,” closely resembles legislation filed in at least three other states. It is linked to Chris Sevier, a Tennessee activist with a spotty legal history who gained national attention for lawsuits targeting same-sex marriage in which he tried to marry a laptop and for writing frivolous bills filed in legislatures across the country.

Groups representing media outlets in Maine and those other states have criticized the idea as blatantly unconstitutional. It is both virtually assured to fail and unusual because of Sevier’s relation to it, but it intersects with media criticism from conservatives and on coverage of crime.

The bill, sponsored here by Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, and co-sponsored by five other Republicans, would allow defendants in criminal or civil cases who had allegations covered by media outlets to petition those outlets to also cover the resolution of their case in a similar fashion if they were acquitted or otherwise not punished to the highest level sought by prosecutors or plaintiffs. 

It would also force media outlets’ hands in other ways: If the petitioner is acquitted of a crime, pleads no contest or receives lighter punishment than prosecutors sought, media outlets would have to remove mugshots from digital publication and could not use the mugshot in the future.

Under the bill, media outlets would have to comply with these requests within 10 days or the petitioner would have a year to file a civil suit on the matter. They could seek damages under the law of up to $10,000, plus damages above that and attorney fees.

The text of the Maine bill is similar to other versions of the measure filed in Mississippi, Tennessee and Rhode Island. In the latter state, it was initially backed by Democrats in 2020 after Sevier approached a state senator after a hearing and gave them a copy of the bill, according to the Providence Journal. The measure was quickly withdrawn there.

Sampson did not answer a question on whether any incidents in Maine prompted the bill or whether she had contact with anyone out of state on the issue before sponsoring it. But she rejected challenges of unconstitutionality and said a person whose acquittal is not as prominently covered as the initial accusation risks “being permanently stigmatized and avoided.”

“It will restore the media to its original intent; a watchdog for the people,” Sampson said of the bill. “It will also reverse the erosion of fundamental civil liberties when individuals are cast in a false light, thereby destroying lives.”

Sevier did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill, which has not been scheduled for a hearing but has little chance for passage in the Democratic-led Maine Legislature. It will be fought by the Maine Press Association, an advocacy group for newspapers whose members include the Bangor Daily News. 

The bill is “a dangerous, unconstitutional piece of legislation that we hope gains no traction in Augusta,” said Lynda Clancy, the group’s president and the editorial director of the Penobscot Bay Pilot in Camden.

“The government should never be telling journalists how to do their jobs,” said Meagan Sway, the ACLU of Maine’s policy director. “Accountability for ethical and responsible journalism must come from dialogue between journalists and the communities they cover. It cannot come from a coercive and unconstitutional government mandate.”

Media outlets have long been criticized over crime coverage. One study found national networks’ evening news broadcasts averaged fewer than 100 murder stories per year from 1990 to 1992 and five times more from 1997 to 1999, when the murder rate was lower. A 2000 study found local TV news viewers were more likely to support punitive approaches to crime.

Some have changed their practices in recent years. The BDN, for example, announced in January it would be allowing people to petition the newspaper to block search traffic to stories about misdemeanors published at least 5 years ago and felonies 10 years ago in a move aimed at “helping individuals to move on from past mistakes.”

Sevier has promoted other legislation across the country, including one bill that would a filter to block pornography and human trafficking websites that a user could lift for $20. He was sentenced to probation in 2014 after being accused of stalking country music singer John Rich and a 17-year-old girl in separate incidents, The Daily Beast reported.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...