State-level bill to protect journalists is long overdue

State-level legislation to hold law enforcement officers’ and public officials’ feet to the fire when they violate journalists’ rights is long overdue.

Of especially strong concern is officers’ mistreatment of journalists, including those with press credentials; abuses range in severity from detention to injurious assault, and it’s a growing trend that needs to be stopped.

Getting state lawmakers to enact a sufficiently strong bill – one that establishes lines of accountability and prescribes specific penalties – would take a protracted effort and we could expect fierce opposition from law enforcement lobbyists, especially politically powerful police unions.

If the Guild were to undertake such a project – and Local leaders have discussed it in general terms – we would need to marshal officers, unit leaders and rank-and-file members; reach out to other journalists’ and civil liberties organizations, news outlets and individual journalists; craft a forceful, air-tight bill; find a state senator(s) or assemblymember(s) to sponsor it; lobby key legislators and the governor; and parry the anticipated onslaught of attacks from law enforcement.

To clarify: By “state,” I mean California in this matter. But the Guild’s primary service area includes Hawaii and Nevada as well, and we should certainly pay attention to the legislative, political and legal issues confronting our members in those states.

The Guild Legislative and Political Committee would appreciate comments from Local members. Please e-mail your thoughts to me and CC Executive Officer Michael Applegate. The committee comprises Local First Vice President Gloria La Riva, Paul Burton and me, the committee chair.

Meanwhile, the Guild and parent NewsGuild-CWA are among roughly 50 co-signatories to a letter, drafted and sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom to urge mayors and police chiefs to take “immediate, concrete steps to prevent further attacks by law enforcement on journalists … as have occurred repeatedly” at demonstrations protesting the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police.

The letter cites numerous cases of police mistreatment of “clearly identifiable” journalists, ranging from detentions to attacks causing serious injuries, and it notes, “Law enforcement officers do not have legal immunity when they violate clearly established rights under the First Amendment.”

It urges Newsom “to inform all city officials across the state that they should exempt the news media from any future curfew order, to the extent they issue one. Commanders on the ground must be required to instruct all officers of the exemption.” And it calls for all California jurisdictions to implement protocols to protect journalists, including:

• Instructing officers and staff that the arrest or physical attack of a journalist who is compliant with reasonable police orders is a clearly established First Amendment violation;

• Swiftly disciplining any officer found to have arrested or assaulted a journalist engaged in newsgathering;

• Informing officers that they could be held legally liable for violating these rights;

• Requiring officers to prominently display their badge numbers, names and other identifying information;

• Prohibiting officers policing protests from turning off body-worn cameras and mandating that recordings begin before an officer interacts with the public;

• Ensuring that crowd control tactics are appropriate, proportional and designed to prevent collateral harm to journalists covering protests;

• Continuing to exempt members of the news media from mobility restrictions, including, and especially, curfews;

• Releasing all information about arrests of or physical interactions with the press to the public and guaranteeing that disciplinary records can be promptly released through public records requests.

– Richard Knee, Guild Legislative and Political Committee Chair

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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.