Illegal Harassment Now MORE Illegal
Our job as broadcaster’s eyes in ears in the state legislature and Congress is not just to consider what a bill author’s legislative intent may be, but to worry about the unintentional consequences that may force a station to defend itself in court. Sometimes that role forces us to oppose powerful and sympathetic interests.
On August 13th, the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed SB 606, a bill that would have received little notice except for the celebrities that testified for it. The bill amends a law designed to prevent children from becoming targets of retaliatory attacks due to the actions of their parents (originally abortion doctors). It attempts to rewrite the law in a way that protects children of celebrities from the paparazzi. While we applaud the idea of severely punishing any photographer who harasses a child, SB 606 twists this 20-year old law to potentially enable newsworthy parents to use children as shields to control the news process.
This bill does not limit itself to movie or television stars or places where they should be able to expect privacy. The provisions of the bill apply anywhere – public streets, parks, courthouse steps, etc. – and to anyone that can argue their children are “newsworthy because of my job,” such as elected officials, law enforcement, judges, and diplomats.
First; let’s be clear that harassing children is already illegal. Singling out photographers as bad actors in the bill may put legitimate newsgatherers in jeopardy. For example, “following and lying in wait” – both news gathering activities – are listed in the bill as examples of the intent to harass a child.
One of the sponsor’s arguments for this bill is that often it is group behavior that creates anxiety in a child, so we should have a tool to discourage photographers congregating in a pack. But if we allow someone to argue group size causes torment in a child, how is a journalist to know in advance what that size is? How do we protect those with ethical behavior from being caught in the net with the unethical? The committee members felt a court would eventually determine these issues, but they won’t be the one staring at a potential prison sentence and hefty fine.
Since the term “harassment” is vague and may be difficult to prove in court, SB 606 also allows a journalist to be sued. There is no requirement that a jury convict in criminal court. An aggrieved parent could obtain a financial judgment without ever proving a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This aspect of the bill worries us the most. Newsworthy people often have deep financial pockets and may look to this law to discourage and suppress news coverage rather than punish a particular offender.
The proponents assure us that despite its focus on pictures, it will only be used when all the current elements of harassment are met: the photographer’s conduct must be targeted at a specific child (under 16 years of age) and must seriously alarm, annoy, torment or terrorize that child. The conduct must be such that it would cause a reasonable child to suffer substantial emotional distress, actually cause the targeted child to suffer substantial emotional distress and the child must be targeted because of the parent’s employment.
We don’t like testifying against mother’s trying to protect their babies, but we have all our objections in the record for any future litigation. Our worry is not that station journalists will ever engage in harassment, but that the threat of a lawsuit hands powerful, newsworthy people a potent weapon. Not all of them may have the sincerity or integrity of the celebrities that testified for the bill.