RICHMOND, Va. A state senator was unable to find even one fellow Courts of Justice Committee member to support his bill allowing trespassing charges to be filed against journalists who enter private property to report on a death or other traumatic event.
State Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli's motion to send what he called the "scuzzball-reporter bill" to the Senate floor failed because of a lack of a second yesterday after news-media groups and lawyers raised constitutional and practical concerns.
The harshest criticism, however, came from Democratic state Sen. Henry Marsh of Richmond, who bristled at Cuccinelli's suggestion that reporters' attempts to cover stories about personal tragedies frequently amount to "harassment."
Said Marsh: "I never heard of such a gratuitous, wholesale attack on the press."
Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, said his bill, SB 1120, was intended to protect the privacy of families in grief. It would have allowed trespassing charges against any stranger who enters private property within a week after the resident suffers a personal trauma that the visitor knew about or should have known about.
Cuccinelli made it clear that the bill targeted the news media, although he conceded that "someone doesn't have to be a member of the press to poke their nose in."
State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, asked whether the bill was so broadly drafted that it would allow trespassing charges against a florist delivery driver.
"They would need to call ahead, that's all," Cuccinelli said.
Steven Benjamin, a prominent defense attorney who is counsel to the committee, cited a multitude of problems with the legislation.
"This bill is unconstitutional there is no doubt," Benjamin said.
He said the measure infringes on the right of the press to report the news. Even an elected official who suffers some trauma could have a reporter arrested for knocking on his door, Benjamin noted.
Cuccinelli said he was appalled by an incident in which a police officer was killed, and her husband was telling their children about the tragedy while three reporters lurked outside the home's windows. Such behavior "suggests a complete lack of human decency," Cuccinelli said.
Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said reporters and photographers should be expected to act in a professional manner.
"Harassment or misconduct on the part of a journalist should be censured," he said, but that should come from their bosses, not the government.
Aaron Gilchrist, a Richmond television anchor speaking for the Virginia Association of Broadcasters, said the bill "criminalizes the method by which we gather information."
He added: "I assure you, insensitivity is the exception rather than the rule for journalists."
Harvey Bryant of the Virginia Commonwealth's Attorneys Association said that while the prosecutors "are offended and chagrined" by the type of conduct described by Cuccinelli, they oppose the measure for practical reasons. For example, the bill does not clearly define trauma or provide a test for determining whether the resident knows the visitor, he said.