From Michigan Capitol Confidential: The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved House Bill 4770, which among other things, attempts to define what a journalist is to restrict access to motor vehicle accident reports for a period of 30 days after the accident.
The measure is part of three-bill package aimed at impeding so-called “ambulance chasing” law firms. Within the package, the legislation is apparently an attempt to deny "ambulance chasers” quick access to accident reports. However, in that effort the bill sets out to define what does and doesn’t qualify as a “news publication.”
Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst with Mackinac Center for Public Policy suggested the legislators revisit their overall approach.
“I’m not sure that the 30-day period is a good idea,” Wright said. “But that said, if they are really trying to prevent trial lawyers from harassing accident victims, why don’t they just require those who want the reports within 30 days to sign a statement that says they will not use the report for commercial advantage? That would seem to make more sense than for the lawmakers to go on a fool’s errand of trying to define what is or isn’t the news media or who is or isn’t a journalist."
Jane Briggs Bunting, president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, said she worries about the long-term implications if the current bill were enacted.
“The government cannot define who is a journalist," she said. "The First Amendment and Michigan's Constitution (Article 1, Section 5) prevents that in very strong, simple and clear language. Efforts to limit access to a select group that includes ‘journalists’ treads on a very slippery slope. I've seen people post public documents to Facebook for the purposes of alerting the citizenry of something going on in government. According to this bill, you couldn't do that as it pertains to accident reports; every other public record, yes, but auto accident reports, which, remember, are the same thing as reports that conclude criminal investigations, no.”