A Georgia state legislator, angry at those who profit from the misery caused by violent crime, has proposed a constitutionally suspect remedy: a special surtax on any money made from telling true tales of serious felonies. The tax money would primarily flow into Georgia's Crime Victim Emergency Fund, which victims can apply to for some reimbursement for the effect of crimes.
The bill, which Democratic Georgia state Rep. Chuck Sims calls "The Victims Rights Act of 1998," originally would have applied to any factual account of a crime for which a perpetrator has been convicted and which happened within the previous 20 years. In response to heated criticism from local newspapers and First Amendment watchdogs, it was amended to be "inapplicable to factual accounts…reported in any media as news reports or news items."
Even with newspapers specifically excluded, Teresa Nelson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia thinks the law violates the First Amendment. "It's a special tax based on the content of your speech," she says.
Nelson notes that the bill is a roundabout way to Sims's supposed goal: relief for victims. She says the state should instead encourage victims to directly sue criminals for any money they may have, not just the proceeds from accounts of their crimes. "If the inmate sold a book of poetry, this `Victims Rights Act' wouldn't do anything to help them," Nelson says. And if most of the money goes into the state fund, the victims affected by a specific crime would end up getting pennies on the dollar at best.
Sims thinks all this First Amendment talk is hooey. "You can't tax people writing movies, books, and screenplays? That's a complete fallacy," Sims complains, not granting that taxing written material raises special constitutional issues. "You tax cigarettes, beer, property owners, cattlemen--all those people are hit with specific taxes based on what they do or sell. All writers are taxed the income tax, so why isn't that a detriment to their free speech and ability to write?"
Because of the bad publicity the bill received, Sims didn't put it up for a vote this year, but he intends to push it again in next year's legislative session. "It had lots of bipartisan support this year," he says, "and I think I can get it through."