Experts slam Senate bill on disclosure of child witnesses

First Amendment and media law experts blasted a bill, which is aimed at jailing anyone who discloses the identities of child witnesses, as “broad” and “unconstitutional.”

“It’s exceptionally broad and patently unconstitutional,” said Jeffrey Pyle, a partner at Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye. “This bill doesn’t take in to account the public interest and simply imposes a one- size-fits-all solution that violates the First Amendment.”

The bill, which was slated to be heard yesterday before the state’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, would punish any “attendee” of a trial for disclosing the identity of a person under 18 years old who testifies. An attendee includes journalists and members of the public.

Similar restrictions have been in place in European countries like Germany.

But experts cited Supreme Court decisions that do not allow for a restriction on free speech as reasons why the bill would be stricken down even if passed by the legislators.

“There might be a situation where it is important to prevent the [child] witnesses from being identified,” said T. Barton Carter, a Boston University professor of communication, “but there are also a lot of cases where this not the case.”

State Sen. Jack Hart, D-South Boston, sponsored the bill.

“In providing testimony, witnesses sometimes face the fear of intimidation and retaliation. It is of paramount importance that we protect minor children when testifying in criminal proceedings,” Hart said in a statement.

The bill

Senate Bill 785 would:
   
Punish any “attendee” of a trial for disclosing the identity of a witness under 18.
   
Propose a sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine.
   
Allow the identity to be known to judges, the defendant, an employee of the defendant, jurors, but not others who are present in the court at any point during the course of the trial.


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