Bystanders who post pictures on social media from the scene of a wreck could face fines under a proposal before the Kentucky General Assembly.
A bill assigned to the House Judiciary Committee would prohibit anyone who witnesses “an event that could reasonably result in a serious physical injury” from publishing information about that event on the Internet for at least an hour if their posting could identify potential victims.
Violators could be fined $20 to $100 per incident. Exceptions are made for the news media, victims of the event and emergency responders at the event.
The sponsor of House Bill 170, Republican state Rep. John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville, said Monday that he wouldn’t push the bill this session.
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“It’s purely my intent to get a discussion going out there, asking people to be more respectful about what they put on social media,” Carney said. “We’ve had some incidents, including one in my community, and I’d hate for anyone to learn about the loss of a loved one through social media.”
One local official who has spoken to Carney about the bill said police are troubled by real-time Internet posts about car crashes and other life-threatening incidents.
There have been times we’ve been pulling bodies out of cars and these people are standing there, snapping pictures on their phones to post on Facebook. It’s just not right.
Tiger Robinson, Pulaski County’s public safety director
“A lot of times, we’re working a fatal traffic accident and someone posts pictures of it on Facebook,” said Tiger Robinson, Pulaski County’s public safety director.
“People see the pictures and say, ‘Hey, that’s my sister’s car!’” Robinson said. “So now you’ve got folks who are upset all showing up at the accident scene that’s still ongoing — sometimes before we’ve even gotten the victims out of the car — and certainly before we can properly notify anyone.
“There have been times we’ve been pulling bodies out of cars and these people are standing there, snapping pictures on their phones to post on Facebook. It’s just not right.”
Tasteful or not, what happens in public is public business, a First Amendment expert said.
“I think the bill clearly is unconstitutional,” said Jon Fleischaker, a Louisville attorney who represents Kentucky news outlets. “When the government tells someone they can’t print something, whether it’s for a second or an hour or a day, that’s prior restraint, and that’s unconstitutional unless there is a compelling government interest.”
The bill’s exception for the news media also is problematic, Fleischaker said.
“In a very real sense, anybody with an iPhone can take a picture and transmit it to the world. I can do it on my phone,” he said. “If you’re trying to define today who is the media and who isn’t, good luck with that.”
Carney, the sponsor, said he agreed that “this probably would have First Amendment problems.”