The Los Angeles County press club and more than a dozen other groups that collectively represent thousands of California journalists Tuesday announced their opposition to an amendment made to a pending state Senate bill that had been intended to protect journalists covering protests, demonstrations and civil unrest.
The amendment to Senate Bill 98 “may actually restrict existing press freedoms rather than expand them, turning this bill on its head and into something that hurts the very people it was written to help,” according to a statement released by the coalition.
SB 98, as originally introduced “would have modestly extended existing state protections for journalists working in disaster areas to also apply to journalists covering civil disturbances.” But the amendment added by the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 20 would require journalists to seek the permission of a police commander to enter closed areas around protests — a hurdle that doesn’t currently exist under state law, according to the coalition.
“Many of our organizations — an unprecedented coalition of press associations, labor unions and journalism advocacy groups — had endorsed SB 98 prior to this amendment, and others were actively considering doing so. But as now amended, we must withhold any endorsement and are prepared to actively oppose SB 98 until its intent to protect journalists is restored,” the statement reads.
The coalition statement notes that during the past two years, “working conditions for California journalists have steadily deteriorated as many of our newspaper, television, radio, digital, freelance and student media colleagues covering protests have been arrested, detained or assaulted by law enforcement while on the job…”
Throughout California in the past 12 months alone, the coalition said it has documented at least three dozen incidents “where police have injured, detained, arrested and violated the constitutional rights of clearly identifiable journalists.”
The amendment “is a clear attempt to hobble this bill,” the coalition’s open letter to the state legislature reads. “Journalists should not need permission from a police commander to cover protests, just as law enforcement-issued press credentials should not be required in order for journalists to exercise their First Amendment rights in a public forum.”
The coalition said it is aware that law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, have been lobbying against SB 98 in recent months.
“We would point out that the sheriff’s mishandling of press freedoms — the department’s deputies tackled and arrested KPCC’s Josie Huang last fall and have injured others — is one of the reasons our coalition formed in the first place,” the letter says. “We urge all First Amendment supporters in the California legislature to remove the amended language or strengthen SB 98 in a way that protects the vital activities of the press and the people’s right to receive information regarding matters of public concern. We encourage Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a genuinely strengthened version into law.”
A vote is expected no later than Friday, and then it would pass to the Assembly.
The letter has 19 signers, including the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles chapter; Journalism and Women Symposium, Southern California (JAWS SoCal); Media Alliance; National Association of Black Journalists of Los Angeles; National Association of Hispanic Journalists and NAHJ’s Los Angeles chapter; National Press Photographers Association; Online News Association Local Los Angeles; Radio Television Digital News Association; and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Greater Los Angeles and Northern California chapters. [Read the full letter here.]