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PD Editorial: Allow journalists to do their work at demonstrations

There should be no doubt that journalists have clear statutory authority to do their jobs and report the news at demonstrations without interference from law enforcement. Yet somehow that’s up for debate in California because of a bill that would have reaffirmed the media’s right to cover civil unrest.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced a measure earlier this year to ensure that journalists are exempt from curfews and dispersal orders issued by law enforcement. The bill also would have guaranteed media access to areas closed to the general public during demonstrations. Officers who violate those protections could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association, the First Amendment Coalition, California Black Media and ImpreMedia, all of whom are justifiably upset about an increase in assaults on and harassment of journalists by law enforcement during anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests, backed the bill.

Journalists, the group said in a joint letter supporting Senate Bill 629, “need to be able to gather and report facts without having to fear that they will be shot at or arrested by law enforcement officers simply because they are trying to provide context and help us all understand the significance of these events.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill this month, however, saying its definition of journalists as “duly authorized representatives of the news media” was too broad and could be manipulated by “white nationalists, extreme anarchists or other fringe groups with an online presence.”

While it’s certainly wise to look out for unintended consequences in proposed legislation, the phrase in question has long existed in state code preserving media access to accidents and disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

Surely there’s a way to ensure that journalists with proper credentials can freely cover demonstrations. McGuire should continue working with his colleagues to craft language that eases Newsom’s concerns and introduce a revised bill.

The governor indicated he is open to revisions. In his veto statement, he said, “Media access to public gatherings — especially protests — is essential functioning democracy, and law enforcement should not be able to interfere with those efforts.”

There is urgency in that message. In May, a law enforcement officer shot a reporter for an NPR affiliate with a rubber bullet during a demonstration in Southern California. Last month, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies slammed a public radio journalist to the ground. Journalists around the country have reported being assaulted and harassed.

“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,” McGuire notes. “Rubber bullets, tear gas and even detainment cannot be the new norm for an essential pillar of our nation’s democracy.”

This week, Newsom released several dozen recommendations from an advisory group exploring ways to improve training and guidance for law enforcement officers handling demonstrations. Among other things, the advisory group said police should avoid unnecessary enforcement that could provoke conflict among protesters, avoid looking too militaristic and use rubber bullets and tear gas only as a last resort. The panel also recommended additional training for how police should interact with journalists.

Demonstrations can be chaotic and even dangerous, and policing demonstrations can be challenging. So is covering them, but journalists have a responsibility and a right to report on them, and newsgathering shouldn’t be impeded by the police.

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