In 2020, against a national backdrop of increasing violence directed at members of the press covering protests, a group of journalists and First Amendment advocates became alarmed as conditions for journalists deteriorated dangerously throughout California . Over a 12-month period from 2020 to 2021, the Los Angeles Press Club documented more than 50 incidents where police injured, detained or arrested journalists in the state.
Advocates from multiple journalist associations and unions knew that they had to do something. After all, their colleagues were targeted while just trying to do their jobs, covering protests over issues such as police brutality and homelessness.
An initially small group grew to an unprecedented coalition of more than 20 organizations – representing thousands of journalists, lawyers and press-freedom advocates – and they got to work.
State Sen. Mike McGuire introduced Senate Bill 98 in 2020 to extend existing state protections allowing journalists to work in disaster areas to also apply to journalists covering protests and civil disturbances.
However, when the bill moved to the state Senate Appropriations committee, an amendment was added that would have rendered SB 98 useless by requiring journalists to seek approval from an on-site incident commander in order to remain once an unlawful assembly is declared. Thus, this state bill meant to protect journalists covering protests would have been worse than the status quo.
While technically an informal association, this newly formed “California Journalists Coalition” demonstrated organizing skills that were honed while volunteering across their individual groups. Together, they launched a campaign, calling state legislators repeatedly over the course of a week to request meetings to discuss the importance of passing a clean version of SB 98, and explaining how existing law impacted journalists’ ability to do their First Amendment-protected jobs. Members of the coalition engaged with state legislators and staff via Zoom meetings, phone calls and email. Soon thereafter, Senators (including members of the Appropriations Committee) changed their position regarding the SB 98 amendment and even shared these shifts via social media.
Soon thereafter, the chair of the Appropriations committee agreed that the problematic amendment should be removed. The California Journalists Coalition began a second round of amendment negotiations, engaging with the bill’s author, law enforcement lobbyists, and other Sacramento interests to refine the language of the bill and settle on changes that would protect journalists while overcoming concerns previously expressed by the Governor.
A new round of phone calls and meetings with legislators also helped SB 98 pass successfully through multiple committees, the Assembly floor, and Senate concurrence.
Convincing Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign SB 98 into law would require yet another strategy. He’d vetoed a similar bill a year before, which didn’t receive much public attention. This time, members of the coalition drafted Op-Eds supporting the bill, which were published in nearly every major newspaper in California, and successfully solicited endorsements from most major editorial boards across the state. The coalition also released a pair of videos on social media that showed how problematic real-world interactions had been between press and police throughout the state. These videos were incorporated in larger Twitter threads that added supporting evidence and arguments. Collectively, the videos received over 50k views, likely by some of the governor’s key advisors who were tagged in the threads.
On Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, just after 5 p.m., Gov. Newsom signed SB 98.
With the bill signed into law, members of the coalition are continuing to work on its implementation with police. They are also sharing approaches that worked in raising support for the legislation as a model for protecting press freedom in other states and they stand ready to coalesce again as similar issues emerge.
At a moment in history when Americans are increasingly taking to the streets to voice their opinions on civil rights, race, inequality, police brutality and many other issues, it’s imperative that journalists have the freedom to cover these protests freely and unencumbered by law enforcement officers who threaten to arrest members of press who are simply doing their jobs documenting this civil unrest. The press has been under attack in many cities across the country for years: from Minneapolis to Ferguson to Los Angeles. In California, the journalists who have been injured, detained or arrested by police are disproportionately Black and Brown journalists. Police have threatened journalists with violence, shoved female reporters to the ground, smashed camera gear, and fired rubber bullets at journalists, injuring them as they covered protests and marches. When police detain journalists during protests and prevent them from doing their job, this has a chilling effect on the press, and ultimately, this prevents journalists from engaging with and providing the public with critical information. By championing the passage of SB 98, the California Journalists Coalition strengthened the existing law to ensure that the vital activities of the press are protected, and that the people’s right to essential news and matters of public concern is safeguarded.
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