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Lawmakers Replace Language in Bill That Would Have Defined a Journalist

State Rep.: 'We'd been going about it in a completely backward way'

Last month, the House reported a bill out of committee that attempted to define who is a journalist. An uproar followed quickly.

"After the committee hearing I realized that I had been going about it in the wrong way," said Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods. "I started to realize that we were dealing with a very profound issue that would have serious ramifications. So I went back to the drawing board."

The problematic portion of House Bill 4770 was amended this week and no longer defines who is a journalist. The substitute language was adopted Tuesday, and the bill passed the House Wednesday on a 98-10 vote. 

"We understand that the original intention of this bill was good but the first draft had some unintended consequences," said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager with the Michigan Press Association. "We are pleased that we were able to work with the committee and the sponsor to amend House Bill 4770 in a way that took any definition of journalist or journalism out of the mix and still accomplished the goal of the legislation."

House Bill 4770 is aimed at preventing "ambulance chasers" from exploiting accident report information. In the original version of the bill, lawmakers sought to attack the problem by limiting access to the reports. To do so, the legislation was written so that within 30 days of the accident only journalists would be eligible to obtain the reports. However, that required defining who is a journalist.

Organizations, including the Michigan Press Association and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government expressed serious concerns about the language in the legislation. 

In a Sept. 13 Michigan Capitol Confidential article, Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, suggested that lawmakers take a different approach. Wright said they should consider language directed at preventing the activity they were attempting to stop rather than trying to define who is or isn’t considered a journalist.

Although the new language in House Bill 4770 isn't precisely what Wright broadly suggested, the new language moves in that direction. It reads:

A person may only access the report if the person or organization files a statement indicating that from the time the person or organization is granted access to the report until 30 days after the date the report is filed, the person or organization acknowledges that the person or organization is prohibited from doing either of the following: (A) using the report for any direct solicitation of an individual, vehicle owner, or property owner listed in the report [or] (B) disclosing any personal information contained in the report to a third party for commercial solicitation of an individual, vehicle owner, or property owner listed in the report.

"I'm not sure who I was talking with following the committee hearing, but they asked what problem I was trying to solve with the bill," Rep. Cogen Lipton said. "Then they asked 'why do you have to define who is the news media to do that?' That's when I started to realize we'd been going about it in a completely backward way."

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See also:

House Committee Votes To Define 'Journalist' and Delay Access To Certain Public Records

Citizen Journalists Should Not Be Shut Out By Government

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