“Do Not Agree To Carry Luggage For a Stranger” is good advice for airport security. It’s also good advice for lawmakers who introduce bills when asked by constituents or random acquaintances.
Several Rhode Island lawmakers have come in for embarrassment after a man approached them — according to one, he was wearing “what appeared to be a military uniform” — and asked them to introduce a bill to make the media fairer and better behaved. Who could be against doing that? Among other provisions, the bill would provide that if a news outlet had reported on allegations in a civil or criminal legal proceeding, it would have to report down the road on later disposition of the case, on pain of a $10,000 fine.
That would fly in the face of established First Amendment precedent, in cases like Miami Herald v. Tornillo (1974), and would sharply discourage the press from reporting on many legal proceedings in the first place. The executive director of the state ACLU called the bill a “direct attack” on press freedom, while the head of the newspaper association called it “laughable and frightening.” A lawmaker who had agreed to introduce the measure in the lower house said “If I knew, I would run ten‐thousand‐million miles away from that guy.… I didn’t do my research.”
A state rep in neighboring Massachusetts, meanwhile, came in for nationwide teasing last fall when he introduced a bill that would make it a crime, punishable by fine or on second offense by imprisonment, to call a person by a five‐letter epithet that begins with a b and that, as First Lady Barbara Bush put it in a famous 1984 episode, rhymes with rich. It wasn’t really his idea, it turned out: “Any time a constituent approaches me with something that is of concern to them, I follow through with it,” he told the Boston Herald. “In this instance, someone asked me to file a bill that they deemed was important and I thought it was a good exercise to let that bill go through the process.”
A good exercise in something, at least, if only in turning legislatures into objects of fun.