By: M.L. Stein
California First Amendment Coalition seeks to overturn law
prohibiting crime sources from selling their stories to the media sp.
ASSERTING THAT IT violates free speech and press rights, a California media group has filed a federal court suit to overturn a state law forbidding crime sources to sell their stories to the media.
The California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) is seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional, as well as charging that it cuts across “other legitimate and sometimes necessary efforts made by private parties to pay for information about crimes.”
The law, an outgrowth of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, is the result of two bills that were passed last summer which became effective Jan. 1. The legislation, authored by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat, and Sen. Quentin Kopp, an Independent, both of San Francisco, applies to any “person who is a witness to an event or occurrence that he or she knows is a crime (or reasonably should know is a crime),” or someone who has personal knowledge of a crime and could be called as a witness.
The law covers any payment, no matter how small, and could include a lunch check picked up by a reporter or editor, travel expenses for a talk-show guest, and remuneration to newspaper or magazine guest columnists.
Violators face criminal misdemeanor prosecution and also a possible suit for a sum equal to three times the amount of money they accepted ? or even simply requested from a publication or broadcaster. Journalists reporting information they have gathered are exempt.
The Simpson trial has spawned several instances of witnesses or potential witnesses in the case receiving media money for their stories or being approached to sell their knowledge.
In one example, a salesclerk admitted in court that he was paid $5,000 by a supermarket tabloid for his recollection of selling a knife to Simpson.
CFAC, a nonprofit advocacy group supported by the media, individual journalists, and others concerned with advancing freedom of information, reported that journalists for mainstream media “are beginning to see more requests for money in exchange for information ? especially where sources are likely to be poor . . . and unimpressed with the notion that information should be given for free.”
The group also points out that no news organization is required to pay for information, “and most do not for a variety of reasons.”
Tom Burke, CFAC’s attorney, said that although the new law does not punish the payer, tabloids and other media that offer money for information may find their sources drying up.
CFAC executive director Terry Francke, a lawyer, challenged the assumption by the bill’s authors that it enhances the accused’s right to a fair trial, which might be jeopardized by a “bidding war” for information about the crime.
“What it really does is very different,” Francke contended. “It prevents situations where prosecution witnesses might be less effective on the stand after the defense made a big deal of the fact that they sold their stories. The embarrassment by the prosecution would be, of course, an advantage to the defendant.”
Francke also posited that the measure prevents defendants from paying rewards for information that could help establish their innocence and stops news organizations from handing out rewards to people who offer to disclose publicly what really happened in any crime ? not just celebrity-related felonies. These, he said, could involve terrorism, organized crime or political corruption.
“Lurking behind all this is the assumption that information that’s paid for is false, or at least suspect,” Francke continued. “It’s the idea that if you ask for money, you’ll be inclined to lie. This suspicion confuses opportunism with dishonesty. Public figures sell their life stories or speeches all the time. Does this mean they are lying? They may be, of course, but the fact that they don’t write or speak for nothing is no evidence on that score.”
Francke argued that the First Amendment does not outlaw payments to people who tell what they know about a crime or anything else in public life. He added that the Supreme Court said as much in telling New York state a few years ago that it could not confiscate proceeds earned by an ex-Mafia figure for his published memoirs.
“But Sacramento wasn’t listening,” he commented. “It wanted to surf the O.J. headlines.”