A new proposed federal law, drafted by U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, [D-Calif.], aims to prosecute acts of violence against reporters as a federal crime.
The Journalist Protection Act would punish those who assault journalists with a minimum three years in prison for causing “bodily injury,” i.e., “a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn or disfigurement; physical pain; illness; or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ or mental faculty.”
Offenders would face six years for causing “serious bodily injury,” i.e., “a substantial risk of death; extreme physical pain; protracted and obvious disfigurement; or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty; or any other injury to the body ….”
As an editor, my chief responsibility is protecting the physical and mental safety of my reporters and photojournalists. We are fiercely defensive of our reporters, as anyone who dared try to intimidate or threaten our staff can attest.
According to Swalwell, “President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere.” The bill’s proponents say violent rhetoric has endangered journalists by erroneously referring to the media as “the enemy of the American People” and “a stain on America.”
The fear among journalists — and the overwhelming majority of Americans who rely on us to provide them with the news of the day and the truth behind their government’s mechanics — is that such verbal attacks by those in power could result in physical violence against us for simply doing our job, whether covering presidential politics in Washington or community news locally.
While that fear is well-founded — in the last year, 44 journalists have been assault victims while on the job — assault is always and unwaveringly illegal, the profession of the victim notwithstanding.
State, county and local prosecutors have been vigorous in defending the rights of assault victims, so it’s unclear that transferring these prosecutions to federal attorneys would make a substantial difference nor that fear of facing federal charges were deter a violent person more than state charges would.
Journalists only have few privileges beyond those of our fellow citizens, mainly free access to private or ticketed events and expedited review for Freedom of Information Act requests we may file for newsgathering purposes. So philosophically, it’s a slippery slope to ask for special treatment.
The Journalist Protection Act also makes the very dangerous act of defining a journalist as, “an employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity or service that disseminates news or information by means of a newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, news website, mobile application or other news or information service ….”
The Society for Professional Journalists — which I joined over a decade ago and which “enthusiastically endorses” the Journalist Protection Act — has always been wary of defining a “journalist” because it raises the very dangerous specter that the government might start raising the idea of licensing journalists which can lead to government censorship.
Instead of an assault bill, what journalism needs more is a federal shield law that would guarantee that we could protect our sources.
In criminal cases, overzealous prosecutors often try to subpoena reporters’ notes or a news agencies’ footage — which most news agencies universally resist tooth and nail — and judges have jailed journalists for contempt to get them to reveal the name of a confidential source or whistleblower.
Many states have shield laws to protect journalism as they understand journalists’ duty to inform the public, enshrined by the First Amendment freedom of the press, outweighs the value in prosecuting an individual providing that information. However, a federal shield law would do more to protect journalism and our profession.
Federally protecting those who “commit acts of journalism,” and publish the truth would do far more to protect journalism than merely prosecuting those who commit acts of violence our colleagues.
Christopher Fox Graham
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