Proposed 'safety over soundbites' bill will sink teeth into First Amendment in Florida
by Sly Spurling
The "sunshine state" may soon be getting a little overcast for reporters trying to discover information on police "tactical actions" if a bill under consideration in the House passes. Press advocates are calling it a "textbook case" of prior restraint, and an attempt to limit speech to the tune of five years in jail or a $5,000 fine.
The bill, 166 in the senate, 141 in the house, would punish reporters and others who broadcast police tactical teams in action, or attempt to directly contact anyone involved in a police standoff without authorization by the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over that situation, by making any attempts to do so a felony.
The press isn't crazy about it at all, but they admit that Senate Bill 166, which passed the Florida Senate, wasn't specifically crafted to restrict press freedoms. Its stated purpose is to protect law enforcement officers, and let them do their jobs without the "fourth estate" getting in the way somehow.
"No one doubts that's the motivation," said David Braylow, attorney for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, "and that's a good motivation. Frankly, if there is a way to make (the police's) jobs safer, then we should all stand behind it. But this way doesn't make their lives and jobs any safer, but it does violate core principles of the First Amendment."
Press advocates said the measure would create an unconstitutional prior restraint on First Amendment press rights; it would allow government officials to determine what parts of a police "tactical operation" may be covered.
Braylow said the bill could be applied very broadly, so police officers could theoretically restrict coverage of many events. He added that the bill would have made the now-famous live coverage of the Chicago Seven demonstrations in 1968 a felony. In fact, according to Braylow, a serious technical error in the bill would allow the officer in charge of any "tactical operation" to determine exactly WHEN the media may cover an operation live.
"If the event is over, but the officer wants to cool potential coverage, it could be two days from then before the officer allows coverage," Braylow explained. "News is a perishable item. When there is an event like a fire or hostage situation, in our day and age, its importance is immediate. The bill deprives the public the immediacy of the event," State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Brooksville) said she drafted the bill in response to a hostage situation from last year that went horribly awry, as well as the news coverage following the Miami slaying of fashion designer Gianni Versace. "I was very disturbed by the media's blatant disregard for safety in both the Versace murder investigation in Miami and the police pursuit and hostage negotiations with Hank Earl Carr in my district," Brown-Waite commented in a statement. "In both of those cases, tactical operations were jeopardized and police officers were endangered because of irresponsible press coverage."
The Senate approved the bill on March 21 with a 35-3 vote. The measure is now before the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee as House Bill 141. If it goes through there okay, any differences between the two bills will be hammered out, and then if they're still approvable by both houses it goes on to get signed into law. THIS MUST NOT HAPPEN.
Why? Well, any time you allow someone outside the press to decide what information can be broadcast when, you are denying freedom of the press. To say that a police officer can make that decision is, quite frankly, nuts: what happens if the police on the scene are incompetent or, worse, over-reacting? When are we, as citizens, going to find out about this? Two days later? After the persons in charge of the little 'whoopsie' have had time to hide evidence and cook the books a little?
In other words, if something like this had been law in Texas during the Waco standoff, we might never have known just how messed up the BATF really is, now would we? "You all just stand over there and turn off your cameras, folks," the agents could have said, "And if any of you try to talk to us, or call that nutcase on the phone in there, or take pictures of ANY of this, you're going to jail."
Now, we at ROC have a great deal of respect for people who want to put on a uniform and try to make the streets a little safer. As much as we might hate the 'pigs' from time to time, who is it that comes to our house at three in the morning to investigate when we see strange figures lurking around the car? And who comes to the door to help out when we come home and find someone's gone through our house and taken the TV? That's right.
But that respect goes both ways: the police have to be open to the press at all times. The chances for abuse of this well-meaning bill are just too damn high, and cut too close to home. If they altered it a little, maybe saying the felony would only be imposed if there was a direct link between the actions of a reporter and something going horribly wrong with the situation, that might be okay. But giving the police the right to shut down the whole reporting chain for fear of something going wrong? Uh-uh. No dice.
ROC urges everyone in the Florida area who cares about the freedom of the press to start contacting the sponsors of the bill to let them know that they're not what we, the people, want. Remember that these people are probably very well-meaning but maybe, just maybe, didn't think of all the consequences that this might cause. Law enforcement is, as always, right behind this one: let's get our shoes out for the opposing side, shall we? And put in a call to the local ACLU to see if they have any suggestions or ideas on what might be done.
Senator Ginny Brown-Waite
Room 314 Senate Office Building
404 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100
Phone (850) 487-5040