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After airing frustrations about media coverage, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee again stopped short of recommending legislation to expand the state's defamation laws on Monday.

A reworked version of Senate Bill 230, which would create an action for "invasion of privacy lawsuits," was presented to the committee Monday evening by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

As described by the bill's author, Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's W. H. Bowen School of Law, SB230 would codify a "hybrid of false light and defamation" law as now defined by the courts. Hammer's amendments to the bill, added Monday, sought to clarify that people spreading false information would only be liable after being given evidence that they had their facts wrong.

A previous version of Hammer's bill failed in the same committee earlier this month, after the Arkansas Press Association and David Bailey, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, objected to the bill.

Both the association and Bailey said Monday that Hammer's amendments did not ease their concerns.

Christoph Keller, an attorney for the press association, said the bill would weaken current jurisprudence requiring that someone bringing a defamation suit show that their reputation was harmed by information that the spreader knew to be false.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

"This bill eliminates those constitutional safeguards," Keller said.

At the meeting Monday and earlier this month, committee members used debate over the bill to air their grievances about press coverage.

Hammer has said the bill was inspired by the media's coverage of a confrontation involving different groups and students from Kentucky at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. That coverage has been criticized as being based on footage showing an incomplete perspective of events.

Other lawmakers brought up national coverage of the confirmation hearings last fall for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as footage from a testy debate in their own committee, which went viral several weeks ago.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, the committee chairman who was a subject of that viral video, has said that some of his words were cut out. He's also criticized several TV stations for failing to retract erroneous reports about a bill Clark has proposed.

Bailey said that in cases in which newspapers or TV outlets had continued to knowingly publish false information, they could be subject to lawsuits under existing court precedents. Bailey said he did not see a reason to write current case law into the state's code books.

"It sounds like you're for no accountability at all," said Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville.

"Sen. Hammer isn't trying to work with us," Bailey said. "We haven't heard any compelling reason why codification is needed."

During a voice vote on the bill, Ballinger and at least one other lawmaker on the committee could be heard voting for it. Clark said the vote fell short of the five votes required for approval.

Hammer left the committee room soon after the bill failed. He could not be reached by phone Monday evening.

A Section on 03/26/2019

Print Headline: Committee again rejects bill expanding defamation law

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