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California boosts protections for journalists covering protests

Spurred by a rash of assaults and arrests of reporters covering last year's Black Lives Matter protests, a new state law allows the press to access areas closed off by police.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California has enshrined the right of journalists covering protests and civil demonstrations to access and report from areas closed off by law enforcement under a press freedom law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Proponents say the law is necessary to prevent the countless scenes of law enforcement pelting journalists with rubber bullets and in some cases arresting them for covering protests spurred by the 2020 murder of George Floyd. The new safeguards explicitly allow reporters to enter and newsgather in areas that have been closed off to the public without the threat of being cited for failing to disperse or breaking curfew.

The author of Senate Bill 98 says preserving the press’ ability to cover demonstrations and protecting them from being abused or arrested for doing their job is fundamental to a well-informed public.   

“We have seen a surge in egregious acts of violence and obstruction made against members of the press across the country and right here at home in the Golden State,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Eureka. “This law will provide critical protections for the press as they attend and report on First Amendment events like protests, marches, rallies, and demonstrations. California is leading the way to ensure the freedom of the press and the First Amendment are protected and held to the highest standard.”

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a record number of journalists were attacked in 2020 with most of the assaults attributed to law enforcement during the Black Lives Matter protests.

For example, a Minneapolis police shot a photojournalist in the face with a foam bullet, leaving her permanently blind in one eye. In Los Angeles, a police officer shoved a Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance photographer to the ground during a May 2020 protest and broke her equipment.  

Under the new law, “duly authorized” representatives of any news service, online news service, newspaper, radio or television station may enter closed areas during protests. If a reporter is detained, the journalist will be permitted to ask for a supervisory officer to immediately challenge the detention.  

The Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which teamed with groups like the First Amendment Coalition and California News Publishers Association in support, praised Newsom’s signing.

“Media organizations have documented more than 50 incidents of journalists being injured, detained or arrested over a 12-month period,” the group said in a statement. “SPJ/LA viewed SB 98 as a necessary step to safeguard coverage of demonstrations, by ensuring that journalists may continue reporting in an area after an unlawful assembly has been declared.”

Law enforcement groups roundly opposed McGuire’s measure, arguing during legislative hearings that allowing reporters to remain in closed off areas adds to the unpredictable nature of civil protests. The opponents proposed amendments that would have required journalists to seek permission from law enforcement before entering the area, but the changes were dashed.

Noting that California has longstanding laws allowing the press to enter areas closed during natural disasters like wildfires and earthquakes, McGuire claimed SB 98’s passage gives the Golden State “some of the toughest protections in place for journalists compared to any other state.”

Newsom vetoed a similar proposal in 2020, saying the bill’s definition of an authorized journalist was too broad and that he was worried fringe groups or antagonists could sneak into closed areas during protests. His concerns were apparently assuaged although the Democratic governor did not include a signing message for SB 98.

The strengthened press protections were part of the final round of 2021 bill signings issued over the weekend.

In total, Newsom signed over 700 bills this year and vetoed nearly 70. He thanked the Legislature for staying focused during the ongoing pandemic and helping to pass a range of bills from rent relief, small business aid and historic levels of funding to fight wildfires and homelessness.

“In a time when the state and country are more divided than ever, this legislative session reminds us what we can accomplish together,” Newsom said in a statement. “What we’re doing here in California is unprecedented in both nature and scale. We will come back from this pandemic stronger than ever before.”

Among the other notable bills signed over the weekend:

  • Senate Bill 81, a criminal justice reform designed to cut back the length of prison sentences for drug and gang-related offenses. The proposal by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner creates guidelines that will allow judges the authority to shun the over 150 sentence enhancements in the California Penal Code.

Skinner says SB 81 will help reverse a “stark racial disparity in California’s sentencing practices” that have disproportionately caused Black residents to spend more time in prison.

Last week, Newsom signed a law that will allow judges to ditch mandatory sentencing schedules and assign probation, treatment programs or other alternative punishment for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

  • Assembly Bill 1346 bans the sale of new gas-powered lawn mowers and other small off-road engines by no later than 2024.

“AB 1346 will curb toxic pollution in California neighborhoods by addressing emissions from leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other small off-road engines,” said Daniel Barad, policy advocate with Sierra Club California. “This bill is another important step towards breathable air and a livable climate in California.”

  • A measure intended to crack down on illegal street races and so-called “sideshows” in which drivers spin doughnuts on vacant parking lots and even freeways. Assembly Bill 3 will allow judges greater authority to suspend the driver’s licenses of convicted offenders.
  • Assembly Bill 1084 requires retail stores with 500 or more employees that sell children’s items to adopt a gender-neutral section or aisle.
  • A pilot program that will raise the daily pay for low-to-moderate income jurors in San Francisco from $15 to $100. The proponents argue higher compensation could leads to more diverse and reflective juries as a result of Assembly Bill 1452.  

Meanwhile Newsom rejected a number of bills that were overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers. The Legislature can override a governor’s veto by supermajority votes in both chambers, but the constitutional tool was last used by California lawmakers in 1979.   

Among the vetoed bills include a proposal that would have decriminalized jaywalking and another allowing bicyclists to treat stops as yield signs.

A transparency measure requiring municipalities to annually post on their websites information about money paid out in police misconduct cases was also scrapped. Newsom called the legislation that would have made settlements and judgments easily digestible for taxpayers costly and unnecessary, noting the info is already available via court records or Public Records Act requests.

Newsom also vetoed legislation that would have made California the first state to implement a fledgling substance abuse program known as contingency management that pays people addicted to methamphetamine for staying sober. The governor returned Senate Bill 110, saying it was premature because the state is already awaiting federal approval for a similar pilot program.

Citing "significant cost pressures to the state," Newsom vetoed plans to greatly expand the state's main financial aid program, the Cal Grant. According to the California Student Aid Commission, Assembly Bill 1456 could have expanded access to financial aid for more than 280,000 students.

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