This week, a bill that would give members of the press greater protections in and around areas closed off by law enforcement during protests faces a crucial hearing and vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Greater protections for journalists and other members of the press
Senate Bill 629, authored by Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), would allow members of the press representing ‘any news service, online news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network‘ to be allowed in or around any closed off area due to a demonstration, march, protest, or rally. Law enforcement would also be officially prohibited from intentionally assaulting, interfering with, or obstructing members of the press reporting on the event, and will not be able to cite them for infringing on failing to disperse or violating a curfew. Any members of the press who are detained can immediately contact supervisors over the reason for detention.
Senator McGuire wrote the bill in response to many members of the press in California being detained and injured by law enforcement during the George Floyd protests and riots in May and June. Continuous protests and riots in Portland since May also affected his decision, as many members of the press have also been injured and detained by law enforcement in Oregon.
“Members of the press risk their personal health and safety each time they attend protests or rallies to get the public the information they need and deserve,” said Senator McGuire when reintroducing the heavily amended SB 629 in June. “Rubber bullets, tear gas, and even detainment cannot be the new norm for an essential pillar of our nation’s democracy. California must lead the way to ensure the right of the press and the First Amendment are protected and held to the highest standard.”
“SB 629 – The Press Freedom Act – will help ensure journalists can perform these critical roles while being protected under the law from any law enforcement officer intentionally assaulting, obstructing or interfering with their duties while they are gathering the news.”
Bipartisan support for SB 629
Little opposition has been mounted against the bill since June. It previously passed the Senate unanimously last year in it’s pre-amended form, and has also passed two Assembly Committees unanimously, including the Assembly Public Safety Committee last week.
“As divisive as the recent protests and riots have been, no party wants to challenge first amendment rights here,” explained Mark Kraft, a lawyer for several independent journalists in California who covered the George Floyd protests, to the Globe. “There’s no real reason to go against it as they are basically reiterating first amendment rights. Many are also for it because it doesn’t extend the protections to the protesters themselves, which had been discussed early on. Plus neither party wants to make the press mad this close to the election.
“It’s legally sound and doesn’t diminish any rights or laws. This is really one of those few bipartisan bills where everybody wins.”
Many groups across the political spectrum, including the California News Publisher’s Association, the California Broadcasters Association, and the First Amendment Coalition have thrown their support to the bill in recent weeks, with many others likely to add their support once on the Assembly floor.
SB 629 is expected to pass both the Assembly and the Senate on a revote due to the added amendments, with Governor Gavin Newsom also indicating that he will sign the bill.