Pushing the Limits of Freedom of Speech

“Mugshot websites,” the sites that make money by showing photos of arrested criminals, might be a thing of the past if one Florida legislator has his way. He introduced a bill that would ban the sites; however, legal analysts question the constitutionality of such a ban on the grounds that a person’s First Amendment Rights to freedom of speech could be challenged by both the websites themselves and by news outlets.

House Bill 677 states that the websites would need to remove any public information on the accused individual once the charges are dropped or the case is closed without a conviction. Websites that fail to do so could be accused of defamation of character and fined for failing to take down the information. Some of the mugshot websites currently have photos in their records of people who were never charged with a crime. These companies are not offering a public service but are attempting to earn money – a fact recognized even by the strongest supporters of free speech.

The Supreme Court will not limit free speech just because others don’t like it. They have ruled that the Constitution allows space to express dissenting and thoughtless remarks. Another consideration includes the fact that the distasteful practices are also the result of the websites using information originally released by the government. As to the issue of defamation, the Supreme Court has also ruled that the party who alleges defamation needs to prove their case. Publishers have a responsibility toward accurate journalism, but they do not need to prove that a hurtful statement is true before they print it. The High Court added that the burden of proof would challenge their First Amendment rights and refused to uphold a “presumption of defamation.”

HB677 has the potential to penalize several types of free speech and require reporters to remove all types of online content. Requests to take down content have increased with the popularity of the Internet as a news source. Journalists do not currently need to comply, but the bill would change that by forcing the sites to remove damaging photos. The bill could also affect law-based, informational sites that record legal actions. All of these publishers could face serious financial sanctions that would accrue daily for any stories that relate to the criminal charges and proceedings in the case if the person is acquitted. For example, any news outlet, such as The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times or The Chicago Tribune, would be fined for leaving stories about the Casey Anthony trial up since she was eventually acquitted of murder.