Georgia considers taxing media for crime reports

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

A Georgia General Assembly bill to create a tax on newspapers, radio and television stations who report on crime has sparked the ire of First Amendment experts, who say such a measure is blatantly unconstitutional.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Sims, D-Ambrose, would levy a 10 percent tax on revenue generated by media outlets for running crime stories. It would also tax convicted criminals 100 percent if they sell stories about the crimes they commit.

All of the money would then go into a state crime-victim compensation fund.

“What can I say? It’s ludicrous,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But she added that such measures aren’t unique.

Kirtley said the bill reminds her of Los Angeles lawmakers in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial considering charging reporters admission to criminal court trials. Other proposals—some serious, some tongue-in-cheek—ranged from renting a civic auditorium for highly publicized court cases to copyrighting trial transcripts.

“It was some way where the city wanted to make money off the trial,” Kirtley told the First Amendment Center.

Sims said he knows his bill has “some First Amendment problems” and that the language may need to be revised to exclude news reports. He said it was never his intention to tax news coverage, although he said he believes victims should get something for their stories.

Susan Howley, spokeswoman for the National Victim Center, said her group supports “creative ways” to force offenders to compensate victims of their crimes but said the bill appears to have some constitutional problems.

Howley told the FAC that even if the bill didn’t violate the First Amendment, she would hesitate to support such a measure because “there are so many times when the media is an ally to crime victims.”

“That victim has a right to that story,” Sims said. “I’m a funeral director. I’ve seen the end result of crime. If you were the victim, you would want to be compensated.”

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take up the legislation today.

Teresa Nelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that if the tax was approved, news stories about crimes might not get told. “Knowledge about crimes increases awareness and promotes understanding for victims,” Nelson said.

“This is public information,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “A law like this restricts free information.”

While the suggestions from Los Angeles aren’t identical to the Georgia bill, Kirtley said “it comes from the same direction: The thought that we in the news media have a lot of money on hand.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.