The authors of state legislation intended to protect journalists covering protests, demonstrations and civil unrest have announced they will remove a recently added amendment that journalism groups feared would restrict rather than expand press freedoms.
Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Anthony Portantino, D-Glendale, made the announcement three days after a coalition of groups collectively representing thousands of journalists, including the Los Angeles and Orange County press clubs and the Society for Professional Journalists’ Los Angeles and Northern California chapters, released a statement strongly opposing the amendment.
Senate Bill 98, as originally introduced by McGuire, would extend existing state protections for journalists working in disaster areas to also apply to journalists covering civil disturbances. The amendment added May 20 by the Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Portantino 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.
The amendment “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 the coalition of press associations, labor unions and journalism advocacy groups.
The amendment was “a clear attempt to hobble this bill,” the coalition’s open letter to the state legislature read. “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 was aware that law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, had been lobbying against SB 98 in recent months.
In a joint statement released Friday afternoon, Maguire and Portantino said that as the “author and co-author of SB 98, we are committed to making the bill a strong measure that protects press freedom.”
“Press access to first amendment events is critical to the future of our democracy. To that end, we have agreed to fix the problem and amend the bill back to its original form. We’ll complete this action in the bill’s first Assembly committee meeting. We remain vigilant in our shared commitment to put this critical bill on the governor’s desk.”
The coalition, which endorsed the original version of the bill, noted that “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, including while covering the March 25 protest at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles.”
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 coalition’s letter had 19 signers, including the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles chapter; 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; and the Radio Television Digital News Association.