AUSTIN, Texas — State Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) is pushing back against critics of a bill he filed that would make it a crime for bloggers and independent journalists to film or photograph police officers. After the bill, HB 2918, was filed, it was the target of criticism from both the right and the left. Villalba has conceded he will make some amendments, but has continued to aggressively defend the bill. This week, the bill was referred to a committee and set for public hearing on March 26.
When the news broke about HB 2918, it was criticized all across the political spectrum, including significant opposition from free speech advocates and activists who monitor police activities, and Villalba has remained largely unrepentant in his defense of the bill. When Breitbart Texas interviewed Villalba about the bill, he insisted that his bill “does not infringe on constitutional rights” or “limit liberty in any way.”
In a statement from the ACLU of Texas provided to Breitbart Texas, Legal and Policy Director Rebecca L. Robertson said, “Texans have a First Amendment right to record police officers in public places as they perform their duties. Many high-profile incidents of police abuse, like LAPD officers’ beating of Rodney King, would never have been exposed to public scrutiny but for the citizen journalists on the scene who dared to record conduct that they believed was wrong. HB 2918 would deprive us of an important check against abuse of power by the police.”
As Breitbart Texas reported, HB 2918 amends Section 38.15(1) of the Texas Penal Code, which makes it a crime if anyone “interrupts, disrupts, impedes, or otherwise interferes with a peace officer while the peace officer is performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law.”
What HB 2918 does is add to the definition of what constitutes “interfering” with an officer’s duties, making it a Class B Misdemeanor to film, record, photograph, or document the officer within 25 feet while that officer is performing his official duties. That distance is extended to 100 feet if the person is carrying a concealed handgun. There is an exception for news media, but the current language of the bill does not include bloggers, independent journalists, or private citizens, and it is not clear whether online media outlets would be included in the exception either.
An article at The Huffington Post noted the bill’s extraordinarily limited definition of media and the well-established legal precedent that publicly filming police officers was protected by the First Amendment. A poll posted with the HuffPo article asked if recording police officers within 25 feet should be illegal, and in the week since the article was posted, over 85 percent of respondents answered no, filming officers should not be prohibited.
Legal Insurrection writer Amy Miller, who is admitted to practice law in Texas, did a deeper analysis of the legal issues with HB 2918:
Legally, this bill tapdances around the First Circuit decision Glik v. Cunniffe. In Glik, the court held that a man named Simon Glik had the right to videotape police in action in Boston in 2011. Glik saw what he believed to be an instance of inappropriate force, and whipped out his cell phone camera to record it. He stayed about 10 feet away while he was recording, and did not speak to the officers or the arrestee while he was recording the incident.
This bill ignores that precedent, which is surprising considering how much technology has blurred the lines between everyday citizen and “official” reporter…
Why are we drawing such an important legal distinction between a CNN employee with a $5000 camera, and a citizen journalist with a $100 GoPro? Non-journalists are hit with a double burden that “official” journalists don’t have to shoulder if they want to get a good shot. This is the real problem, and the point that constituents should bring up when they press Villalba on the issue.
Conservative talk radio host Chad Hasty wrote a blog post titled “Villalba’s No Good, Very Bad Proposal,” which called the bill “a disgrace.” David Jennings penned an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle that accused Villalba of seeking to suppress the First and Second Amendments:
I thought that Republicans were supposed to be the protectors of liberty, free speech, and the 2nd Amendment. Right? Well, not if you are Rep. Jason Villalba (144-Dallas). It seems that Rep. Villalba, in an attempt to please “the good men and women in blue”, has decided that the First and Second Amendments need to be tossed aside…
In typical Villalba fashion he is not backing down and is unapologetic for his attempt to suppress free speech and gun rights. I find it very interesting that he targets concealed carry permit owners, statistically one of the least criminal groups you can find. Villalba wants you to move 25 feet away from an officer to film but if you are legally carrying a concealed weapon, he wants you 100 feet away. Both are egregious violations of our rights, I’m just curious why he doesn’t like concealed permit owners.
Likewise, Brett Sanders, who frequently writes about police accountability issues, called HB 2918 “an egregious violation of free speech under the United States and Texas Bill of Rights.” Sanders noted that Villalba was directly attacking how new technologies empowered citizen journalists to hold their government accountable, which was something that the founder of this website, Andrew Breitbart, enthusiastically supported.
“Thanks in large part to the smart phone revolution,” said Sanders, “the majority of individuals are armed with some sort of recording device that can capture video images of police activity, for better or for worse. This technology, coupled with social media allows individuals to share information that traditional media couldn’t possibly capture live, and share with the entire world with just a few taps on their phone.”
The Free Thought Project blog also criticized Villalba for limiting citizens’ abilities to hold police accountable:
What’s clear is that filming law enforcement in the commission of their duties has been established as “free speech” under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.
The ability of citizens to hold officers accountable for their actions is not only protected “speech,” it’s also a necessary check on an out of control law enforcement apparatus.
When politicians attempt to take away the people’s ability to create an objective record of interactions with cops it should raise serious red flags. This is an unmistakable example of the ruling class attempting to provide cover for its paid enforcers.
A website called the “Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents,” that says it offers “Biker news by the community for the community,” issued a “Call to Action” in opposition to HB 2918, encouraging their readers to call or email the committee members who will decide the fate of the bill.
Even an Irish pub has weighed in on Villalba’s bill. B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub, one of Austin’s well-known Sixth Street bars, tweeted at Villalba their opposition to the bill:
@JasonVillalba Standing w/police does not preclude citizen oversight. Photography is not a crime & catches/prevents many. NO on HB 2918.
— BD Riley’s Irish Pub (@bdrileysaustin) March 13, 2015
[T]his bill could seriously trample on civil liberties. Besides, public interference problems aren’t nearly so pervasive that corrective legislation is needed beyond the existing authority to penalize those who interfere with law enforcers…
Villalba’s timing couldn’t be worse, considering the numerous national cases in which observers have recorded officers behaving badly or using questionable force against suspects…
This bill flies in the face of a national trend to introduce more — not less — documentation of police actions. Dallas County, for example, is allocating $80,000 to purchase lapel cameras for 77 Sheriff’s Department deputies.
The editorial board also took issue with HB 2918’s narrow definition of media, such that would exclude bloggers and citizen journalists, which they described as “particularly troublesome,” despite the fact that their paper would fit into the exception in Villalba’s bill. “Members of the public, whether recording or merely observing, should never obstruct officers from doing their jobs,” they conclude. “We believe law enforcers have sufficient authority under existing law to keep interference at a minimum without the need for overreaching limits and prohibitions.”
The Morning News’ Jones gave the bill an “F” grade and noted that the police “already have authority to move people back if they become a problem,” thus rendering Villalba’s stated purpose for the bill — protecting police officers — already satisfied, therefore making the bill unnecessary. He also took issue with HB 2918’s narrow media definition. Writes Jones, “We live in an era where much of what we know about current events has been contributed by citizen or amateur contributors, be it videos, photos or written accounts.”
In an interview with the Morning News posted one day later, Villalba finally conceded that HB 2918 has flaws that he blamed on “clumsy drafting” and promised to amend the bill. Laughably, he claimed that he had “absolutely no expectation that this would become controversial.” He also said that he understood the value of bloggers and citizen journalists, although this is directly contradictory to statements he made to the press just a few days before where he admitted that his bill was targeting “independent bloggers who are focused on keeping law enforcement accountable,” such as he said in an interview with KXAN last week.
In an appearance on WFAA’s Inside Texas Politics program, Villalba admitted that the timing of HB 2918 was “a little tone deaf,” considering the recent stories across the country about accusations of abuses of power by law enforcement. Villalba further promised to amend the bill to change the distance from 25 to 15 feet and apply to everyone.
HB 2918 is scheduled for a public hearing next Thursday, March 26, before the House Select Committee on Emerging Issues In Texas Law Enforcement. The public notice for the hearing says that it will be held at the Capitol in room E2.030, as soon as the House adjourns for the day. HB 2918 is the sixth out of seven items on the Committee’s agenda for the day.
The Committee hearing is open to the public, and will also be livestreamed on the Texas House website.
Breitbart Texas will continue to follow this story.
A previous version of this article had a typo on one of the mentions of the bill, HB 2918. This has been updated.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.