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Bill requires family consent before media can publish victim photos

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    NMU         GEORGIA         Newsgathering         Mar 6, 2001    

Bill requires family consent before media can publish victim photos

  • By an overwhelming margin, the Georgia House of Representatives sent a bill to the Senate that may overturn a 45-year-old legal precedent against similar prior restraint.

In a 159-6 vote, the Georgia House of Representatives on March 5 passed a bill requiring media to get permission from families before publishing photos of homicide victims. Legislators voted in favor of the bill despite opposition from the media at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 21.

House Bill 631, now before the Senate, would amend a state statute by exempting photos of murder victims’ bodies from the state’s open records law. Although media could still access photos of murder victims under the proposed bill, the amendment would require any party wishing to publish or broadcast them to first obtain a written release from the family of the deceased.

Representatives from the Georgia Association of Broadcasters and the Georgia Press Association testified that the bill is a form of prior restraint and a violation of the First Amendment.

Bill Sanders, president of the Georgia Association of Broadcasters, said the association does not “vehemently” oppose the bill, but will continue to contest the legislation.

“We oppose it on the basis that it does increase the volume of public material that is not available for public dissemination by the media,” he said. But given the potential misuse of murder victims’ photographs, Sanders also said the association agrees with the proposed legislation “in spirit.”

“There should be some element of self-regulation,” he said, adding that the association disdains any government restriction of access to public records.

Whether the media will have the opportunity to testify again is up to the discretion of state Sen. Rene Kemp, a Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Neither Kemp nor the committee’s vice chairman, state Sen. Greg Hecht, was available for comment.

State Rep. Kasim Reed, who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill with state Rep. Tom Campbell, told the committee the purpose of the law was to ensure the privacy of victims’ families, not to hinder the press. Under the current law, public disclosure of “medical or veterinary records and similar files” is deemed an invasion of privacy.

If passed, the bill would overturn a 1956 ruling by the state Supreme Court that held photos of murder victims, as a matter of public interest and public record, do not constitute an invasion of privacy. In that case, Ruby E. Waters sued the Tribune Publishing Co. after its newspaper, The Daily News Tribune, published and sold photos of Waters’ 14-year-old daughter, whose murdered body was found in the Etowah River.

(H.B. 631) ML

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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