Lawmaker tables own privacy bill amid sharp criticism

Andrea Romero. Courtesy photo

Freshman state Rep. Andrea Romero introduced a bill that proposed to fine private companies if they did not remove “damaging” or “excessive” information about people from their websites.

Romero withdrew her legislation less than 24 hours later, after she was pilloried by critics who said she wanted to undermine the First Amendment and use state government to police disputes in the private sector.

Romero, D-Santa Fe, on Friday asked the speaker of the House of Representatives to table her proposal before it could be heard by any legislative committee. So her measure, House Bill 437, died with a whimper.

“The intent of the bill was to protect victims of revenge porn, cyberbullying and others,” Romero said in a statement. “I understand that the language was far more sweeping than intended. … Media plays an important role in democracy and I respect and honor their contribution to public debate.”

Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said that once he learned of the content of Romero’s bill on Friday afternoon, he asked her to reconsider it. She asked him to table it shortly thereafter.

Romero titled her proposal the “Right to be Forgotten” bill. She said she based it on a law in the European Union.

It would have required publishers to delete “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate and excessive” information about people or pay a daily fine of $250.

During an interview Friday, Romero said she could not say for sure who would determine on behalf of the state whether a private company had published something that was “irrelevant,” “excessive” or otherwise unfair. She said the secretary of state would be one possibility to investigate these complaints.

Overseeing elections and corporation filings are the secretary of state’s primary responsibilities. The office has no authority to investigate complaints that publishers defamed someone or printed something that was irrelevant.

Romero said her bill was designed to protect people who were charged with a crime but were not convicted.

“You can’t function as a person anymore because of this misuse of personal information,” she said before pulling the bill.

For example, she said, a published mug shot of a person charged with drunken driving can “follow you the rest of your life” and harm someone’s well-being and career prospects, regardless of whether you are guilty or innocent.

Advocates for a free press called Romero’s bill a strike against the First Amendment.

“This could open up anybody who is a publisher of anything to be slapped with a fine of $250 a day,” said Rory McClannahan, executive director of the New Mexico Press Association.

But he said he didn’t see how any attempt by the state to impose fines on private publishers would hold up in a court of law.

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said Romero’s bill would have turned the state into an editor of the press.

“The passage of this law would allow anyone who wants to whitewash their personal history to do so,” she said. “It’d be like someone walking into the library and forcing it to destroy books they didn’t like.”

Romero said her bill was never intended to infringe on the press. “This is not to suppress anything that is true,” she said.

Her bill identified those who would be subject to fines for publishing missteps as a “search engine, indexer, publisher or other person that makes information about an individual available, on or through the internet or other widely used computer-based network, program or service.”

That would have included newspapers and other public journals, McClannahan and Majors said.

Romero, 31, took her seat in the House of Representatives less than three weeks ago. She defeated three-term Rep. Carl Trujillo in a bitter Democratic primary election. During the campaign, a female lobbyist accused Trujillo of sexual harassment years ago. The allegation against Trujillo was later dismissed by the House of Representatives after his accuser, Laura Bonar, declined to testify in a public inquiry.

Romero herself came under fire during the campaign after the state auditor last year said Romero had misused more than $26,000 in taxpayers’ money while she was executive director of an advocacy group, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

She took a drubbing in the press for her oversight of the coalition. Romero, though, said coverage criticizing her played no part in her decision to introduce the “Right to be Forgotten” bill.

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General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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