Connecticut lawmakers heard heartfelt testimony Wednesday in support of a bill to prohibit the news media from publishing pictures or videos of fatal car accident scenes before affected families have been notified.
The legislation, heard by the Government Administration and Elections Committee during a Wednesday public hearing, would be unlikely to withstand First Amendment challenges if passed.
Due to tragic circumstances, the bill is tied to Jim Leahy, the former head of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association. Leahy’s 21-year-old son, Tommy, died in an auto accident in Mansfield nearly two years ago. His daughter, Hannah, first learned of her brother’s death when she discovered pictures of the wreck that had been published online. She said the vehicle, which she shared with her brother, was unmistakable in the photo.
“I knew it was my car and I knew my brother was the fatality in the accident,” she told lawmakers Wednesday. She described feeling panicked, trying to contact her brother, the police, or her father. “I went back and forth with the idea for 30 minutes all while continuously calling and texting my brother and looking at the news articles online, desperately hoping to find something in the car that would make me believe that it wasn’t him.”
During her testimony, Hannah Leahy described the practice of publishing identifying information about accident victims prior to family notification as dangerous and traumatic. No one on the committee disagreed. The bill to prohibit it has nearly a dozen co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers praised her advocacy and efforts to shield others from enduring the same experience.
But there was also an acknowledgement from lawmakers that the bill raised “complications.” Sen. Mae Flexer, co-chairwoman of the panel and one of the bill’s sponsors, asked Jim Leahy whether work could be done outside of the legislative process to encourage members of the media and others to be more compassionate and refrain from publishing upsetting material.
“Perhaps a law isn’t the best way to get this across but how can we work to make this a best practice across news organizations, first responder agencies, bystanders?” Flexer asked.
Leahy pointed to his former role as head lobbyist for Connecticut newspapers and said he was an ardent advocate of the First Amendment. He said the bill had led to conversations with media organizations and he planned to continue those conversations.
“Sometimes a law is the right thing and sometimes it’s not the right thing but maybe it’s what we need to get someone’s attention,” he said.
On Thursday, Mike Savino, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he was sympathetic to the painful ordeal the Leahy family had experienced. Journalists should be mindful of the unintended consequences of what they publish, but the bill before the committee was unconstitutional, Savino said.
“There’s some real pain here for the family but the idea that the government can set standards for what the media can publish has been rejected by the court numerous times,” he said.
The decision to publish photos of the crash involving the Leahy’s was a mistake, Savino said, but not a nefarious one.
“This isn’t TMZ reporting on a helicopter crash of a celebrity and putting the news out there before the families know. This isn’t somebody nefariously saying ‘I got the scoop. I don’t care how people feel about it,’” he said. “The idea that this requires legislation, even to force a conversation, I think that’s extreme.”
During the hearing, Leahy said he would continue to push alongside his daughter to shield others from learning about the death of a loved one from a news article.
“I mean, I’m a dad. I will do whatever I can to try to get my daughter what she wants and what she wants is for people not to experience that,” he said.