A bill apparently designed to harass the press in this ostensibly liberal state by requiring some reporters to register as private detectives and pay a fee has cleared the first hurdle in the Massachusetts legislature.
Despite questions of constitutionality, the state Senate approved the unprecedented legislation without debate last week and the measure is expected to come before the House this week.
The bill, clearly designed to cramp the style of investigative reporters, would subject journalists to the same regulations as private detectives, including mandatory payment of a $750 licensing fee -- which opponents say is a violation of the constitutional "prior restraint" principle.
The regulations would apply to any person employed by "news gathering organizations" who poses as someone else while gathering material for publication or who conducts "secret survellance of a person from a hidden vantage point by means of a camera, telescope or any other manner, or at night uses a specially adapted camera for such observation."
A companion bill, still in committee, would require all reporters covering the statehouse here to file personal financial statements annually with the state. Legislators are already required to disclose their finances.
"I see no reason to put reporters in a special class," said Denis L. McKenna, sponsor of both bills. "They are no better or worse than politicians."
McKenna was also quoted last week as saying, "Reporters have a sensitivity to the public; they should be able to say, 'I have no other source of income other than the newspaper I'm working for.'"
The legislation appears to be a reaction to a successful 1977 investigation by the Boston Globe's award-winning "Spotlight Team." In a series, the newspaper's investigative unit cited McKenna as naming an aide to a socalled "no show" job. Such jobs are held by state employes who collect full-time pay but fail to work full-time hours.
McKenna today was unavailable for further comment on his legislation.
His son and aide, Michael McKenna, said today, "If reporters have a right to check into the financial assets of legislators, then legislators have a right to know the financial situation of any individual who has an influence on state government."
Gerard O'Neill, editor of the Globe Spotlight Team, called the legislation "part of a process of curtailment of our function, and harassment.
"He's obviously trying to make our job more difficult, to make it part of the bureaucratic process," said O'Neill. "It presents a whole galaxy of problems and I find it repugnant on a number of levels."
The local press, a number of legislators and at least one authority on constitutional law have branded the bills "unconstitutional."
Arthur Miller, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, was quoted as saying, "I think it's silly... what we have is an angry legislator who is saying. 'If you're going to put me under a microscope, then, by God, you get under the microscope too'."
However, James R. McIntyre, counsel the Massachusetts Senate, said he would argue that the bill requiring some reporters to register as detectives, "does not infringe upon the First Amendment right of freedom of the press.
"It doesn't restrain or regulate the press and I think it would be ruled constitutional by the current makeup of the Supreme Court," said McIntyre, who was also mentioned unflatteringly in the Globe's investigative series on no-show jobs.