California governor says no to expanded press protection

Governor Gavin Newsom speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr Creative Commons)

A measure that would have expanded protections for journalists who are assigned to cover protests and rallies was rejected on Wednesday by California Governor Gavin Newsom following pressure from law enforcement groups who claimed those protections could be misappropriated by unscrupulous actors.

Senate Bill 629 would have expanded current protections that allow authorized members of the news media to enter disaster zones by incorporating other events, including rallies, demonstrations and marches. It would have also allowed members of the media to enter law enforcement command posts established in connection with rallies and protests.

Proponents of the measure said the arrests of newspaper, radio and television journalists at protests and rallies in recent years warranted expanded protections that ensured those reporters were able to do their assigned jobs. But law enforcement groups countered with their own concerns, including a worry that ordinary citizens might create business cards or homemade press credentials in order to gain access to areas that are normally off-limits to the public during demonstrations.

In a letter sent to the governor’s office, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen — one of the biggest pro-law enforcement lobbying groups in the state — said advances in consumer technology made it difficult to tell an actual, professional journalist from someone who merely points a camera or a microphone at people.

“Today’s professional recording equipment is high-definition, digital and much smaller than in the past,” the letter said. “They are so small, in fact, that they look like cameras many people use for personal use.”

The letter drew upon the example of an unnamed Sacramento Bee reporter who they claimed rode “around on a bicycle using his cell phone as a recording device.”

On the eve of the governor’s signing deadline, Newsom said he agreed with the letter, arguing that expanded protections for journalists had the potential to come with the unintended side effect of giving bad actors wholesale access to tactical and other sensitive areas used by law enforcement during protests and other events.

“Law enforcement agencies should be required to ensure journalists and legal observers have the ability to exercise their right to record and observe police activities during protests and demonstrations, but doing so shouldn’t inadvertently provide unfettered access to a law enforcement command center,” Newsom said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, California Black Media and the First Amendment Coalition all supported the measure.