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Reporters Committee, media groups say Calif. vehicle law penalizes newsgathering

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  1. Newsgathering
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by several media organizations including the National Press Photographers Association, has…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by several media organizations including the National Press Photographers Association, has filed a letter brief to an appellate court arguing that a law with steep penalties for engaging in commercial photography from a moving vehicle is overbroad and unconstitutional.

“We do not suggest here that the act of driving recklessly down California roadways itself should be considered a constitutionally protected newsgathering activity,” the Reporters Committee letter brief noted. However, “[t]he law as it is written threatens to sweep into its grasp and subject to enhanced penalties not only the much-maligned paparazzi photographers in pursuit of lucrative celebrity images, but members of the mainstream press traveling on assignment to the places where news happens and the visual-journalist en route to capture images of relevance to the community.”

The letter brief to the Appellate Division of the Los Angeles Superior Court was filed in the case of photographer Paul Raef, who in 2012 was charged under Section 40008 of the state’s Vehicle Code, which allows for longer jail sentences and steeper fines than basic reckless driving laws if the offender has “the intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording or other physical impressions of another person for a commercial purpose.” Raef was accused of engaging in a high-speed car chase with pop star Justin Bieber in an attempt to get a photo.

The trial judge, who dismissed the charges as overly broad and unconstitutional, declined to reconsider that ruling after an appellate panel suggested he do so. The case is now before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

“This law clearly violates the First Amendment by singling out photographers and videographers for penalties beyond the scope of the state’s reckless driving laws,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “No one should drive irresponsibly, but this section of the law targets those engaged in newsgathering, a legal activity, for stricter penalties. Getting to the source of the news is essential to getting the story, particularly for visual journalists. If Section 40008 is allowed to stand, it could set a dangerous precedent for limiting reporting on matters of public concern.”

In addition to the Reporters Committee and NPPA, the letter brief was joined by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, The Associated Press Managing Editors, California Broadcasters Association, California Newspaper Publishers Association, the E.W. Scripps Co., and the Society of Professional Journalists.

About the Reporters Committee:

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Brief: California v. Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles (Raef)