Hawaii bill targeting visitor guides violates free speech, critics say

Monday, March 21, 2011

HONOLULU — A bill moving through the Hawaii Legislature would require the authors of visitor guidebooks or websites about Hawaii to warn readers of potentially hazardous conditions at any recommended site located on private land.

State lawmakers are seeking to reduce the number of injuries and deaths that occur when sightseers venture onto private property that may be unsafe, but critics have warned their approach infringes on free-speech protections.

If a guidebook reader is seriously hurt or killed at one of those sites, the guide’s author would have to defend and provide financial compensation to the landowner in the event of a lawsuit. The regulations also would apply to publishers who have a hand in authoring the guides.

The bill, H.B. 548, is backed by members of the state’s tourism industry and some of its largest private landowners, who say the legislation is all about safety. They say some guidebooks and websites lure visitors into dangerous situations, such as Kauai’s Kipu Falls, where three people have drowned since 2008, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports.

“People direct them to a place they know, one, is private and, two, they know people get hurt there, and drown there. Why would you want to do that?” Rep. James Tokioka, D-Wailua-Koloa, the sponsor of the House version of the measure, told the newspaper.

But critics call the bill an alarming violation of the First Amendment and insist there are far better ways to promote safety and discourage trespassing.

In a letter to House members dated March 8, the New York-based Media Coalition, a First Amendment advocacy group, said the bill did contain one potentially valuable provision: The creation of a task force to identify problem areas throughout the state. But the rest of its requirements are deeply flawed, the group said.

“Guide books or websites are not a product like aspirin or laundry detergent. They are protected by the First Amendment and the state cannot tell an author how to describe an attraction or activity or risk financial punishment,” the group’s executive director, David Horowitz, wrote.

The bill has passed through the House and is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow in the Senate Tourism Committee.

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