Jim Leahy testifies before the government administration and electoral committee
Connecticut lawmakers gave their heartfelt testimony Wednesday in support of a bill banning the news media from posting pictures or videos of fatal car accident scenes before notifying affected families.
The legislation, which will be heard by the Committee on Government Administration and Elections during a public hearing on Wednesday, is unlikely to withstand the challenges of the first amendment if it is passed.
Click above to vote on SB 760: An act that prohibits posting of a picture or video of a fatal accident until a family or household member has been notified
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 almost two years ago in a car accident in Mansfield. His daughter Hannah first learned of her brother’s death when she discovered pictures of the wreckage that had been posted online. She said the vehicle she shared with her brother was unmistakable in the photo.
“I knew it was my car and I knew that my brother was the fatality in the accident,” she told lawmakers on Wednesday. She described how she felt in a panic and tried to contact her brother, the police or her father. “I went back and forth with the idea for 30 minutes while I kept calling and texting my brother and checking out the news articles online. I was desperate to find something in the car that made me believe it wasn’t him . “
During her testimony, Hannah Leahy described the practice of posting identifying information about accident victims prior to notifying families as dangerous and traumatic. Nobody on the committee disagreed. The bill to ban it has nearly a dozen co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Legislators praised their advocacy and efforts to protect others from having the same experiences.
But there was also confirmation from the legislature that the bill raises “complications”. Sen. Mae Flexer, co-chair of the panel and a sponsor of the bill, asked Jim Leahy if there was work outside of the legislative process to encourage media and others to be more compassionate and not post disruptive material.
“Perhaps a law is not the best way to get this across, but how can we work to make this a best practice for news organizations, first responders and bystanders?” Asked Flexer.
Referring to his previous role as chief lobbyist for newspapers in Connecticut, Leahy said he was a passionate supporter of the First Amendment. He said the bill sparked talks with media organizations and he plans to continue those talks.
“Sometimes a law is the right thing and sometimes a law isn’t, but maybe that’s what we need to get someone’s attention,” he said.
On Thursday, Mike Savino, president of the Connecticut Council on Information Freedom, said he was okay with the Leahy family’s painful ordeal. Journalists should be aware of the unintended consequences of their publication, but the bill before the committee is unconstitutional, Savino said.
“There is some real pain for the family, but the idea that the government can set standards for what the media can publish has been rejected by the court on multiple occasions,” he said.
The decision to post photos of the Leahy’s crash was a mistake, Savino said, but not a shameful one.
“This is not a TMZ reporting a celebrity helicopter crash and posting the news there before the families know. This is not someone who shamefully says, “I have the bullet. I don’t care how people think about it, ”he said. “The idea that this requires legislation, also to force a conversation, I find extreme.”
During the hearing, Leahy said he would continue to work with his daughter to protect others from learning about the death of a loved one from a news article.
“I mean, I am a father. I will do everything I can to get my daughter to get what she wants and what she wants is for people not to experience that, ”he said.