New Jersey Mug Shot Bill Raises Open-Access Concerns
A proposed law targeting ethically questionable sites that post arrest mug shots easily passed in the New Jersey General Assembly on Thursday, but journalists organizations and open-access advocates worry that it will have wider consequences.
A proposed law targeting ethically questionable sites that post arrest mug shots easily passed in the New Jersey General Assembly on Thursday, but journalists’ organizations and open-access advocates worry that it will have wider consequences.
Mug shots are big business, and New Jersey’s General Assembly wants out.
On Thursday, on a 70-10 vote, the assembly passed Bill A-3906, which would limit public access to police arrest mug shots prior to conviction. (The bill still has to pass the state Senate, and it’s unclear whether Republican Gov. Chris Christie would sign it.)
The bill is intended to protect the privacy of those who were arrested but not convicted of a crime, including those charged with serious crimes. Though strict, it wouldn’t be the only measure of its kind: Kansas, Montana, and Washington state all ban public release of the arrest photos, while 10 other states put restrictions on their release.
However, with the recent rise of so-called mug shot sites, the New Jersey legislation could take on added significance—and press groups say that’s not necessarily a good thing if it means information is kept from the public.
An Industry of “Humiliation”
In October, a New York Times article examined the rise of “mug shot sites” in depth, detailing the stories of a few people who were arrested at some point in their lives but whose mug shots remained at the top of their Google results for years, even after charges against them were dropped or they were found not guilty. Though some sites would allow them to pay a fee (of up to several hundred dollars) to remove the mug shots, the pictures often showed up on other sites—which also would require payment for removal.
“It was only a matter of time before the internet started to monetize humiliation,” reporter David Segal wrote. “In this case, the time was early 2011, when mug shot websites started popping up to turn the most embarrassing photograph of anyone’s life into cash. The sites are perfectly legal, and they get financial oxygen the same way as other online businesses—through credit card companies and PayPal.”
The article, which noted the concerns of the press, led Google to change its algorithms to de-emphasize mug shot sites. PayPal and major credit card companies also told the newspaper they would sever relationships with the sites. JustMugshots, one of the largest sites mentioned in the Times article, is currently a defendant in a class action lawsuit filed in December.
In New Jersey, media outlets face complicated ethical dilemmas of their own regarding mug shots. The pictures have significant editorial value for stories and are huge traffic-drivers online even without a story attached. In 2012, one of the most popular articles on the news website NJ.com was a mug shot roundup, and in the days before the assembly considered the bill, the site published another list for 2013—along with an editorial opposing the legislation.
Press Groups Speak Out
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has fought similar laws in recent years, argued that while the problems arising from mug shot websites need to be dealt with, the law could play a major role in limiting public access to government records in the state.
“If states are looking to rein in that type of behavior from website operators, they should look to punish the bad actors instead of making a sweeping decision to limit public access to records,” Emily Grannis, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, told the Asbury Park Press.
The New Jersey Press Association, meanwhile, argued that the proposed legislation would fail to achieve its goal of protecting the public and would take important information from the public record.
“The bill’s efforts to conceal from the public mug shots of individuals who have been arrested is contrary to New Jersey’s laudable and longstanding efforts to maintain transparency in government,” the NJPA wrote in a policy statement reported on by The Press of Atlantic City. “No legitimate basis has been provided for concealing these records from public access.”
In an interview with The Star-Ledger, NJPA Executive Director George White called the bill “an overreach” that does far more than hurt mug shot websites. (The Star-Ledger, The Press of Atlantic City, and the Asbury Park Press are NJPA members.)
“It’s the functional equivalent of outlawing motor vehicles because of people who don’t drive safely,” White said. “In each case, it’s the behavior that must be addressed.”