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State rep. backs off bill to censor internet content

Andrea Romero

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After a scorching backlash, freshman state Rep. Andrea Romero on Friday quickly backed off a bill that would have required that publishers remove “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive content regarding an individual” from the internet.

Critics saw the measure as an assault on the First Amendment and press freedom by Romero, who was the subject of months of hard-hitting news coverage and commentary during her successful run for northern Santa Fe County’s House District 46 seat last year.

Romero, a Democrat, introduced what she titled the “Right to be Forgotten Act,” which would require “certain persons that provide public information to remove damaging information upon request.”

“A publisher shall remove inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive content regarding an individual, and any links or indexes to that content, within thirty days of the date of receipt of a request to do so from that individual,” House Bill 437 says.

Chuck Peifer, an attorney with First Amendment expertise who represents the Journal, said the proposed bill could be used to punish a publisher who refused to censor information.

“It’s plainly unconstitutional; that’s the bottom line,” Peifer said. “That’s classically unconstitutional as violating the First Amendment.”

Romero said in a written statement Friday afternoon that she is quashing the bill. News reporters and others had thrashed the measure, filed at the Legislature Thursday, on social media.

“Although there is not a formal process for withdrawing legislation, I have asked the Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives to table this bill indefinitely,” her statement said.

The bill broadly defines “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive” information as “content relating to an individual that, after a significant lapse in time from its publication, is no longer material to current public debate or discourse when considered in light of the demonstrable harm that the information, article or other content is causing to the individual’s professional, financial or personal reputation or other interest.”

The bill did include an exception for “criminal convictions, legal matters relating to violence in which the individual played a substantial role or content that is of significant public interest.”

The proposed legislation would impose monetary penalties of $250 for each day after 30 days from when an individual asked for content to be removed from the web.

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Melanie Majors said the bill could restrict freedom of speech and lead to censorship.

“Transparency and accountability are essential for a working democracy, and this is a terrible anti-transparency bill,” Majors said. “The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is opposed to any law that restricts the public’s right to know. This proposed legislation is troubling. It’s like walking into a library and forcing them to destroy books you don’t like.”

Romero’s statement said her intent was “to protect victims of revenge porn, cyber bullying, and others,” though neither revenge porn nor cyber bullying are mentioned in the bill.

Romero did not answer emailed questions or return a phone call asking for an explanation of this discrepancy.

Her statement further read, “I understand that the language was far more sweeping than intended, and I would never want to – in any way – undermine the 1st Amendment. Media plays an important role in Democracy and I respect and honor their contribution to public debate.”

Romero faced controversy during and after her successful Democratic primary race against then-District 46 incumbent Carl Trujillo.

Two audits raised questions about thousands of dollars of travel and other spending by the taxpayer-supported Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, where she was executive director. Romero was reimbursed for spending on booze and Major League Baseball tickets at coalition board events.

Her contract with the coalition, which advocates for federal dollars for hazardous waste cleanup and jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, expired during the controversy.

News coverage of the coalition’s financial mess and Romero’s role in it continued even after the primary. Romero defeated a write-in opponent in the November general election.

David Carl, the spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said Romero is being investigated, apparently over Regional Coalition matters, but would not say specifically what is being looked into.

“We can confirm the Office of the Attorney General has received a public referral and this matter is under review,” Carl said in an email. “All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken, but we remain deeply concerned about any misuse of public funds by officials.”

This article has been changed from an earlier version to note that Romero did have a write-in opponent in the November general and did not run unopposed.

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