An anti-press bill that’s already flopped in several statehouses across the country has been introduced in Maine.

The proposed Stop Guilt by Accusation Act would mandate that media organizations that report accusations of crimes or misconduct follow up with the outcome of any court cases related to the story or face possible liability.

Screenshot from a video promoted on the Special Forces of Liberty website aimed at pushing the Guilty by Accusation Act.

“There’s no question this bill is unconstitutional,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said. He said the U.S. Supreme Court has laid out bright lines related to the freedom of the press that the proposal clearly violates.

The sponsor of the measure in Maine, Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson of Alfred, could not be reached Friday.

The bill has a clear history that can be traced through its introduction by right-wing lawmakers in other states in the last couple of years, including Mississippi, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Republican from Rockingham, said he introduced a bill this year that appears to be almost the same as Sampson’s.

Baldasaro, who calls himself “a constitutional guy,” said he put the measure in the hopper at the request of “a group out there that tries to pass legislation across the country,” including the Stop Guilt by Association Act it pushed in Mississippi and beyond.

“It’s not a freedom of speech issue,” Baldasaro said, because its aim is merely to stop the press from “destroying a person’s life.”

He said he has a prominent friend who got arrested for driving while intoxicated, news that was splashed across the papers and on television. When prosecutors cleared him, Baldasaro said, it either went unreported or wound up mentioned briefly in the back pages.

“You never see anything in the paper clearing somebody,” Baldasaro said.

Silverman said it is understandable why people might have an issue with newsrooms doing an incomplete job.

The correct way to deal with that, he said, is to talk to editors and reporters to convince them to put a higher priority on making sure the outcomes of cases are given enough attention.

The bottom line, though, is that it is a news organization’s prerogative to make those decisions, not the government’s, Silverman said.

Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine, said Friday that “the government should never be telling journalists how to do their jobs. Accountability for ethical and responsible journalism must come from dialogue between journalists and the communities they cover. It cannot come from a coercive and unconstitutional government mandate.”

The bill itself justifies its proposed restrictions on press behavior because a “pattern of media outlets failing to report on the ultimate outcome of cases has eroded the community’s trust in the integrity of government institutions.”

The state has “a compelling interest to promote the truth, because without truth, there is no freedom,” the bill declares.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, presenting sponsor of the proposed Guilty by Accusation Act File photo

Lawyers across the country have successfully convinced legislators so far that clamping down on the press, which is specifically protected under the First Amendment, is both doomed legally and a poor idea generally.

The bill appears to have its origins in a website that carries the Stop Guilt by Accusation name created by something called “De Facto Attorney Generals/ Special Forces Of Libertys/ Clean Services Foundation.” There is no such foundation or any indication the other groups have a formal existence.

Beneath the group names is a number that is answered by a man named John Gunter Jr. in Salt Lake City, Utah. He said Thursday, though, that he could not answer any questions about the bill, the website or anything else.

Sounding contrite, he said “they” told him he can’t talk to the press. He did not say who “they” are.

Gunter has worked hand-in-hand with a Tennessee gadfly and music industry executive named Chris Sevier. The two have filed some far-fetched lawsuits together.

Sevier said Friday that he won’t talk to reporters either. But he certainly has a long record of playing to the press.

As Mississippi Today reported last March, when it delved into the background of a Guilt by Accusation bill introduced in its state, Sevier has sued Apple for failing to block porn on its computers and even married his laptop in a well-publicized, if ridiculous, bid to undermine gay marriage. He has a lengthy record of homophobic activism.

Chris Sevier Facebook photo

Sevier lost his law license in 2011 after a Tennessee court questioned his mental stability after country start John Rich accused him of stalking, including sending the singer a semi-nude photo of himself wearing an American flag, his body apparently covered in blood, according to a 2014 story in The Tennessean.

Sevier told Mississippi Today that he wrote the Stop Guilt by Accusation bill and was pushing it with the help of a “team of about 300 people.”

Lawmakers in Mississippi and Rhode Island said Sevier helped convince them to introduce the Guilt by Accusation measures. They said they did not know his background at the time.

Baldasaro said he didn’t remember the names of the guys he spoke with about the bill, but Gunter’s name rang a bell with him.

He said they were “a group of veterans” who are trying to push the legislation in many states.

The Special Forces of Liberty has its own website that is pushing five specific pieces of legislation in states across the land, including the Stop Guilt by Accusation Act. Sevier and Gunter are listed on the site as the people to contact.

On the site, the group includes a video meant to help viewers understand the bill and to urge them to press lawmakers to enact it.

In the video, Sevier, the narrator, said “people like myself have been subjected to all kinds of phony civil and criminal cases for political and religious reasons.”

He said the point of the measure is “to stop tyranny by the media.”

Baldasaro said what he recalls from talking to supporters about the proposal is that “some of their friends got screwed over” in the press and they are looking for a way to ensure more fairness for those subject to potentially damaging stories.

Sevier, 43, describes himself on Facebook as a combat veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a 1st lieutenant with the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, part of the Tennessee National Guard.

In addition to Sampson, the Maine lawmakers who cosponsored the bill are all Republicans: Sen. Paul Davis of Sangerville and Reps. Gary Drinkwater of Milford, Laurel Libby of Auburn, Sheila Lyman of Livermore Falls and Shelley Rudnicki of Fairfield.

Lyman said Friday that she is “looking into it” more after initially supporting it at the request of another legislator. She said she had not heard from any constituents or others asking her to back it. Libby referred questions about the proposal to Sampson.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing by the Judiciary Committee.


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