Unprecedented collaboration among unions, news organizations and lawmakers statewide brings big political win in Sacramento.
A Guild-supported bill protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists covering civil disturbances and other mass public events has received California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature and is to become effective on Jan. 1.
Just how effective remains to be seen. One participant in the effort to get the legislation – Senate Bill 98, authored by Mike McGuire (D-north coast) – enacted said law enforcement officers will likely chase journalists away from tense events by declaring the venues to be crime scenes. What’s more, the new law, added to the state Penal Code as Section 409.7, prescribes no penalty for violating it, though it does provide basis for civil lawsuits by journalists thus victimized.
So now we wait to see whether SB 98 will change police behavior toward journalists, especially freelancers, long the favorite target of cops in the field.
“Before (Jan. 1), it might be best to focus on police training. After the new year, the focus can shift more to press training as by then we’ll know how police plan to implement it,” Adam Rose, Los Angeles Press Club secretary, who helped lead the pro-SB 98 effort, said in a note to other participants.
On balance, SB 98’s enactment is a step in the right direction and it marks a big political win for unions, news organizations and lawmakers up and down the state who worked with unprecedented unity to fight law enforcement interests’ efforts to eviscerate the bill.
SB 98 will require that law enforcement officers allow journalists to enter closed areas and will prohibit officers from assaulting or otherwise preventing journalists from doing their work. Reportedly at the behest of the Los Angeles County sheriff, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a poison-pill amendment that would have required journalists to obtain permission from police on-site commanders to enter closed areas. The Guild is among about a score of organizations whose protests persuaded the committee to withdraw the amendment. The coalition also worked with the governor’s office on the bill’s final language.
Within the Guild, participants in the effort to move SB 98 forward were the Legislative & Political and Executive committees, especially President Derek Moore, who is on cordial professional terms with McGuire.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports that 142 journalists were arrested or detained in the United States in 2020. That compares to just nine such arrests the previous year.
SB 98 is one of four California bills whose outcomes matched Guild positions. The others:
Senate Bill 16 (Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley): Newsom signed this Guild-supported bill, which expands public disclosability of police-conduct/misconduct records.
SB 274 (Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont): Newsom signed this Guild-supported bill, which strengthens California’s open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, by requiring local agencies with websites to email copies of or website links to meeting agendas or all documents in agenda packets upon request by members of the public.
Assembly Bill 268 (Jacqui Irwin, D-Camarillo): This bill, which the Guild and other sunshine-advocacy organizations opposed, is dead or dormant after the Senate Public Safety Committee canceled a hearing at Irwin’s request. It would require courts, on request of “qualifying” family members, to seal autopsy reports and any evidence associated with examinations of persons killed due to crimes or when prosecutorial agencies have determined that all persons who could have been prosecuted for the crimes have died. As noted by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, “Public access to autopsy reports and associated evidence ensures that coroners and medical examiners remain accountable to the public, and that mistakes or substandard investigations are not swept under the rug.”
A pair of California bills had disappointing outcomes:
SB 459 (Benjamin Allen, D-Redondo Beach): This bill, which the Guild supported, is dead or dormant after the Assembly Appropriations Committee canceled a hearing on it. It would increase lobbyist information reporting requirements.
AB 339 (Alex Lee, D-Milpitas, and Cristina Garcia, D-Downey): Newsom vetoed this Guild-supported bill, which would strengthen the Brown Act by requiring that through the end of 2023, all public meetings in jurisdictions with populations over 250,000 include opportunity for all persons to attend via call-in or internet-based service option; that all meetings provide public with opportunity to comment on proposed legislation; and that translation services be provided for the 10 most-spoken foreign languages in California, with speaking-time limits doubled for persons speaking in foreign language to allow time for translation.
– Richard Knee, Guild Legislative and Political Committee Chair