Staff Writer & Illustrator
George Floyd: I don’t think America will ever be able to forget this name — I know I won’t. Over the course of the last five months, this man’s brutal murder at the hands of four Minneapolis officers has shaken our country to its core and laid bare the glaring faults of the U.S.’s law enforcement systems and government. People on the streets have been gunned down by rubber bullets, forced to tears with gas, and beaten with batons, but it’s not just protestors — it’s the press as well.
According to the Washington Post, Michael Adams with Vice News repeatedly identified himself as press before being told ,“I don’t care” by an officer and ordered to the ground. He then received a blast of pepper spray to the face. Carolyn Cole, LA Times photographer, was hit in the face with a rubber bullet, and Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested live on CNN at a different protest. Exposed by demonstrations battling the horrors of police brutality and systemic racism, these simple violations of journalistic integrity have inspired new legislation aimed at guarding reporters and their teams — our last line of defense against tyranny — from the suppression of truth and news. One such example is California’s recent attempt at passing SB 629, a bill made to solidify the rights of the press.
Senate Bill 629, also known as the Press Freedom Act, was introduced by Californian State Senator Mike McGuire and faced virtually no opposition on its way to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. In early August, Lake County News reported on this bill passing through the Assembly Public Safety Committee with seven votes unanimously in favor. As for the logistics of this bill and what they consist of, the writing is pretty straight forward. To directly quote SB 629, it states:
“This bill would, if peace officers close the immediate area surrounding any emergency field command post or establish any other command post, police line, or rolling closure at a demonstration, march, protest, or rally where individuals are engaged primarily in constitutionally protected activity, as described, require that a duly authorized representative of any news service, online news service, newspaper, or radio or television station or network, as described, be allowed to enter those closed areas and would 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.”
Wow, that’s a mouthful. Kimberly Wear, a writer for the North Coast Journal, summarized this by saying “[SB 629] will prohibit law enforcement officers from obstructing, detaining, assaulting or otherwise preventing the press from fulfilling their constitutional mandate in reporting on these events by making it a misdemeanor for any peace officer to do so.” Hence, the name ‘The Press Freedom Act.’
What sparked this drafting of this bill in the first place? I will refer to the Lake County News once again: “According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been approximately 600 incidents in the United States of reported aggressions against the press in the last several months. These aggressions include detainments, arrests and attacks against members of the press attempting to do their jobs at First Amendment protests, marches and events.” While peaceful protestors being attacked is bad enough on its own, documented reports of police officers knowingly arresting and assaulting members of the media go to show that there is a blatant disregard for Americans’ rights to know the truth and the rights of the press to report on it. Senator McGuire responded to these actions by saying:
“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. 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.”
It is for these reasons that SB 629 was introduced to California. McGuire recognizes that it is our government’s job to protect our democracy, and democracy cannot properly function without an uncensored press. Despite the significance of this bill and the overwhelming support it received, Governor Newsom has vetoed the legislation on the basis of security. Newsom points out in his letter that it would be entirely possible for people to dress themselves as members of the media so as to have access to secure locations where they could inflict damage or cause harm.
While the governor’s concerns are reasonable and come from good intentions, I believe that we risk more by allowing the police force to remain unchallenged in abusing reporters and their crews than by offering broad protections to people who are gathering information and footage for the public. There are already journalists who have sustained irreversible injuries, such as Linda Tirado — a freelance journalist who is now permanently blind in her left eye after being shot with a foam bullet. In theory, fringe groups could hide behind fancy cameras but that has not happened yet and no one has shown interest in doing so. Currently, journalists are risking the safety of themselves and their teams to give relevant information to the public and make historical reports on civil unrest in our country.
While I agree that we must take caution to prevent potentially dangerous situations, I believe that the current danger that journalism is facing takes priority over a potential loophole. I don’t know all of the in’s and out’s of state law or how exactly one would go about making amends that both parties find suitable, but I do think that it is necessary to take action to protect the will of the people first and foremost. That said, the governor’s concern should be duly recognized, and precautions should be taken to further identify those who are actually members of the media and not fringe terrorist groups. Our nation is in a state of upheaval like none alive have seen before, and it is crucial now more than ever to protect the integrity of journalism and her rights.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Stephem Lam / Reuters / Newscom