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SHORT ITEMS09/09/96 A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in late July calls for the creation of a task…



A bill introduced in the House of Representatives in late July calls for the creation of a task force to study ways to prevent attorneys and reporters from violating the privacy of the family members of passengers involved in airline accidents.

The provision is part of a larger bill, the “Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996,” which would require the National Transportation Safety Board and individual airlines to take actions to address the needs of families of passengers involved in airline accidents. The bill is designed to provide information to family members about passengers involved in accidents, and to provide counseling services.

The task force would be created by the Secretary of Transportation, in conjunction with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, airline carriers, and families that have been involved in aircraft accidents. No representative of the media or the legal profession would be included. (H.R. 3923)

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The Supreme Court of Montana struck down a criminal defamation law in early August, holding that the statute violated the First Amendment because truth was not an absolute defense to prosecution. Instead, a defendant was required to show that the material had been communicated with good motives and for justifiable ends.

The court said it would not write a “truth defense” into the statute, but instead struck down the law as unconstitutionally overbroad.

The court heard the appeal after Richard Helfrich was convicted of criminal defamation and stalking for distributing fliers, claiming that a named individual had engaged in criminal conduct. (Montana v. Helfrich)

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In late August, the California legislature rejected a bill that would have made some types of defamation a crime. Under the bill, making a malicious false statement to another person for money, knowing that the person would publish or broadcast the statement, would be a misdemeanor. The maximum punishment would have been a year in jail and a fine of $10,000.

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In a late August ruling, the Federal Communications Commission granted permission to three television broadcast networks to offer major presidential candidates free air time, exempting them from the equal access requirements of the Communications Act.

The networks — Fox Broadcasting Company, Public Broadcasting Service and Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. — proposed to offer only the major presidential candidates free air time. The FCC agreed, ruling that broadcasts shall be deemed “on-the-spot coverage of bona fide news event” programming under the Communications Act, thus exempting the networks from the requirement to give equal access to all legally qualified candidates, including lesser known or fringe candidates.

The decision comes after a series of proposals from the three networks and an FCC hearing in late June. Coverage proposed by the networks ranges from a one-hour prime-time special on ABC to nightly two-and-a-half minute spots on PBS. These proposals, the FCC found, were consistent with “congressional intent to encourage greater coverage of political news,” according to an FCC statement.

The FCC also stressed in its ruling that these proposals must include reasonable safeguards against broadcaster favoritism.

NBC and CBS will also offer free air time to candidates, but within their regular evening news broadcasts, which qualifies for an automatic exemption to the equal access rules. (FCC Report MM 96-25)