The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors pressed state legislators Tuesday to pass a bill that would allow journalists to cover protests and rallies without worrying about being arrested or injured by police.
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl recommended the board’s support of Senate Bill 98 in its original form and urged lawmakers to drop a recent amendment that would impose restrictions on reporters’ freedom to access areas closed off by officers.
“Residents across the state and county depend on journalists and reporters to provide accurate and timely information on current events,” Solis said. “It is only fitting that members of the press be allowed to conduct coverage of an incident or event without facing harassment by law enforcement.”
As protests and calls for justice reforms swept Los Angeles County in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, there were several high-profile cases of local journalists being physically assaulted, detained or arrested. A coalition of journalists has tracked the details of 36 incidents in California over the past 12 months.
In response to incidents of law enforcement harassing the press, Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced SB 98 to allow “a duly authorized representative of any news service, online news service, newspaper or radio or television station or network” to enter closed areas and “prohibit a peace officer or other law enforcement officer from intentionally assaulting, interfering with, or obstructing a duly authorized representative who is gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public.”
Journalists say the bill simply extends the same state protections they enjoy when working to cover a fire or other natural disaster to their reporting on civil disturbances.
The bill originally drew support from a broad coalition of press associations, labor unions and journalism advocacy organizations.
But while in committee, an amendment was added that would bar access to closed areas absent “authorization from a commanding officer on scene.”
When a Senate floor vote was called on June 1, the bill passed easily, with some legislators apparently paying little attention to the change.
Journalism organizations reacted quickly, moving to pull their support in light of what some called a “poison pill” amendment. They mobilized to call senators who expressed support for First Amendment press freedoms to ask why they backed the amended bill.
On Friday, McGuire and Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge and one of the bill’s co-authors, issued a press release saying they would remove the amendment and revert to the bill’s original language.
“As the author and co-author of SB 98, we are committed to making the bill a strong measure that protects press freedom,” the pair said in a statement. “Press access to first amendment events is critical to the future of our democracy.”
They promised to amend the bill back to its original form in the bill’s first Assembly committee.
Some members of the coalition remain wary, in part because they say law enforcement representatives, including from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, have been actively lobbying against the bill.
Josie Huang is a public radio reporter for NPR affiliate KPCC and LAist who has covered more than two dozen protests over the past year by groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to those seeking to Make America Great Again.
“I’ve been so proud to help document our country’s reckoning with race, racism and police violence,” Huang told the board Tuesday. “But I have to say it has come at a cost.”
Huang recalled being tackled and taken to jail by sheriff’s deputies in September while covering the shooting of two deputies and a protest in Lynwood.
“Journalists need to do their job without the threat of arrest or bodily harm,” she said. “The stakes are even higher for independent and student journalists who don’t have reinforcements or large newsrooms to fall back on. Journalists of color … have disproportionately borne the brunt of injury at the hands of law enforcement.”
Matt Pearce, president of Media Guild of the West, a News Guild-CWA local that represents journalists at the Los Angeles Times and several other in newsrooms in Southern California, Arizona and Texas said the situation has become untenable.
“As journalists, we don’t normally get involved in politics, but over the last two years, our profession has witnessed a disturbing deterioration in law enforcement’s treatment of journalists,” Pearce told the board, mentioning the March arrest of Los Angeles Times reporter James Queally at protests over a homeless encampment in Echo Park, among others. “We urge the Assembly to remove the amendment and pass a clean bill.”
The county board directed its legislative advocates in Sacramento to support SB 98 only if the amendment about seeking authorization from a commanding officer is removed.
“We live in a restive moment when many Americans, concerned about longstanding injustices, are taking their concerns to the streets, and it is critical that the press be allowed to do its job free of harassment so that the public can have access to complete and accurate information,” Kuehl said.
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