PD Editorial: Protect the press on the front lines of demonstrations

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

State Sen. Mike McGuire is back with a bill to ensure that when police and protesters converge, the press can report what happens. Senate Bill 98 would clarify that law enforcement may not interfere with journalists doing their jobs. That includes reporters who show up to cover protests.

Last year, journalists were detained, pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets by officers at Black Lives Matter protests in California. The incidents were rare, but each time something like that happened, the public was denied front-line reporting on a crucial social movement and the police response to it. Worse, it sent a chilling message to all reporters that they should not cover this particular story.

Such events were not unique to California. Police cracked down on reporters and photojournalists in many states. Perhaps the most egregious incident involved a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested and charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts at a George Floyd protest last year even after identifying herself as a reporter. A jury acquitted her last week. Yet the threat of imprisonment can be enough to stifle the press.

McGuire’s bill would ban such overzealous police response. Reporters could remain in protest areas that police have ordered cleared or near a command post to do their job. Detained journalists would have the right to immediately contact a supervisory officer to challenge the detention.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. An almost identical bill sponsored by McGuire, D-Healdsburg, passed the Legislature last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, citing concerns that all protesters with cellphones or notepads could declare themselves journalists and be untouchable by law enforcement.

That straw man argument doesn’t hold up. Both bills define protected journalists as “duly authorized representatives of any news service, online news service, newspaper, or radio or television station.” It’s not just anyone with a fedora and a card stuffed in it that says “press,” though some language in last year’s bill was a little squishy on that point. This year’s bill dropped that section. That ought to be enough for the governor.

McGuire’s bill resonates especially strongly this week. Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of transparency in government, began on Sunday. Transparency is more than public records and open meetings. Real transparency is people watching their government in action. But let’s face it, most people don’t have the time or inclination to keep close tabs on every government meeting or decision. That’s what reporters do.

If the government shuts those reporters out, then transparency is a mirage. The founders guaranteed freedom of the press in the First Amendment because they knew that journalism and the sunshine it brings are essential to a successful democracy in which the public can hold elected officials accountable at the ballot box.

McGuire’s bill has passed its first committee and is scheduled for another hearing next week. Sunshine Week synergy would have been nice, but we’ll take it as long as it keeps moving toward passage. Last year, both chambers of the Legislature passed McGuire’s bill overwhelmingly. They should do the same again, and this time Newsom should sign it.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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