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MPAA fights prior restraint bill in Massachusetts

FOI Alert Volume 2 Issue 15 (1996-97)

The Motion Picture Association of America is taking issue with a bill moving through the Massachusetts legislature with lightning speed.

House Bill 4752 expands an existing law which forbids using the name, image or story of any Massachusetts resident for trade or advertising without his or her consent.

Trade is defined as movies, televisions and stage productions. But the tricky catch phrase in the bill says, "included, but not limited to ..."

"They're authorizing prior restraint," said Robert Lystad, First Amendment counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists. "It's like saying you can only write the Ted Bundy story if we get Ted Bundy's

The furor erupted over current filming of a Disney movie focusing on the Woburn (Mass.) toxic waste case which stars John Travolta.

The case linked pollution to families whose children suffered from leukemia, real-life stories chronicled in Jonathan Harr's 1995 legal thriller "A Civil Action." Travolta, who will portray the beleagured pollution-battling lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, is expected to get $20 million. Harr will reportedly earn $1.2 million. And the families whose children died of leukemia will get zip.

That's what brought the case to the legislature. Under civil law, people whose lives or images are portrayed in the media can only sue if they are harmed in some way. The makers of "A Civil Action" reportedly do not plan to use the real names of the victims.

The movie will apparently focus on Schlichtmann, who won an $8 million settlement from one of the companies accused of dumping toxic waste.

Woburn victims have said they don't want to relive their tragedy on film and other supporters of the legislation believe families should be paid for film rights.

Those in the film industry argue the bill "shackles the fundamental right of expression."

The association said in its Aug. 11 news release that the legislation also applies to news stories and uses as an example Sports Illustrated.

"Every name and picture utilized in a single issue of that publication would have to be cleared by each individual described, quoted or photographed. The ramifications of this proposed action are endless and hostile to the rights of reporters and creators of all media," said Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the association.

But there is some disagreement in media circles.

Bill Plant, who represents the Massachusetts Publishers Association, said the bill doesn't mention anything about news gathering -- an activity protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

"It's a big fuss about nothing," Plant said, who consulted with his association's attorney.

Vans Stevenson, senior vice president over state legislation for the motion picture group, said many publishing coalitions representing booksellers and video retailers are opposing the legislation.

"This bill would open a whole new can of worms. People will say case law says the press is shielded. That's fine but no one has passed this legislation before," Stevenson said.

Many have objected to the way the bill pushed through, with little opportunity for public comment or debate.

How did the bill come up?

According to The Boston Herald: "The man who has pushed this bill on Beacon Hill is former state-senator-turned filmmaker Nick Paleologos, who says he owns the rights to the families' stories, not Disney." The legislator is quoted as saying: "In this type of situation, you would want the input of the parents in order to make the film more accurate."

And on the editorial page, The Boston Globe thinks House Bill 4752 is good legislation. "Ordinary citizens should at the very least be consulted, if not compensated, by film or stage producers about to make millions from their pain. Disney should stop pinching pennies and do the right thing," wrote The Globe.

Jack Authelet, SPJ's state sunshine chair in Massachusetts, said the bill was enacted in record time and "is a classic knee-jerk reaction by legislators riding the crest of public opinion."

"It's absolutely frightening how quickly something like this can move," he said.

Authelet also said the governor has hinted at a veto. Legislativem officials said the bill will not be brought up again until September after being called for reconsideration in the Senate.

Media groups who oppose the pending legislation are writing Governor Paul Cellucci, Room 360, State House, Boston, MA., 12133.

This month's notable quote:
Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, who led negotiations in the historic tobacco industry settlement.
What he thinks of political maneuverings in Washington, D.C.
"This is a strange town. People talk more than they act."

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