City lawmakers say the new regulations approved last week governing film crews riding along with police won’t inhibit the gathering and broadcasting of news.
News outlets “should rest assured that we’re not going to force this on them,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart.
The law now requires certain film crews to seek informed, written consent from people captured on camera in Spokane interacting with police and offer the footage to the Police Department for review. It was prompted by the popularity of “Live PD,” a show that has contracted with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to broadcast police work in near-real time. The version being sent to Mayor David Condon’s desk for a signature, which appears to be unique to Spokane among places where the cable TV show is filmed, exempts “bona fide news organizations or camera crews which are not embedded or under contract with a law enforcement agency.”
Neither “bona fide news organizations” nor “embedded” are defined in the law. The lack of those definitions are one of the issues Condon will consider when reviewing the ordinance, said Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the mayor.
“That is one question that he has, what is a bona fide news organization?” Coddington said.
The proposal drew cries of censorship from Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and members of the public who testified before the Spokane City Council passed the ordinance Monday night. Stuckart argued shows like “Live PD” allowed companies to make money by broadcasting images of people in distress who were unable to give consent for their images to be shown to a national TV audience.
Stuckart said he didn’t believe the ordinance applied to Spokane News, which for the past 10 years has aggregated scanner traffic, police and fire news releases and social media posts. But City Councilman Breean Beggs, who helped craft the language of the law, hesitated on whether the new regulations would apply to that organization.
“It would basically be a court decision,” Beggs said. “I don’t know that you could craft a two-line definition of that, it’s almost like a whole court opinion.”
State laws do not specifically define what is “news media” and who belongs to that industry. The state’s law protecting reporters from disclosing confidential sources limits its protections to “news media” but does not lay out specifically to whom that applies. The state’s law requiring consent for the recording of conversations lists protections for employees of a “newspaper, magazine, wire service, radio station, or television station acting in the course of bona fide news gathering duties.”
Beggs said the “embedded” portion of the law was intended to address organizations, including the “Live PD” crews, filming law enforcement contact with people who do not otherwise have the opportunity to object to their image being recorded. It is not intended to prevent crews from TV stations from doing what are known as “ride-alongs,” where there is an agreement between the journalist and officer; or anyone else with a camera in public streets from recording in public areas, he said.
“When the police have their perimeter, whether you’re media or nonmedia, they can film whatever they want to do at that line. It doesn’t apply to them,” Beggs said. “This is for that rare situation, and it’s very narrow, when the police invite the camera person as they’re taking a battering ram to take someone’s door down, that’s when it applies.”
Duane Swinton, an attorney who has represented The Spokesman-Review and taught media law at Gonzaga University, said it would be difficult for any city law to trump the rights of an individual to publicly film law enforcement.
“They can’t restrict anybody from filming in public,” Swinton said. “If I show up at the scene of an accident, unless I’m interfering with law enforcement, I should be able to film that without any restrictions whatsoever.”
Beggs said the issue could be resolved by a journalist traveling with a law enforcement officer to remain in a public space when they stop to speak with members of the public.
Any member of the media wishing to ride along with a member of the Spokane Police Department must already sign a contract that prevents them from filming people or entering a home without their written consent, said Michele Anderson, a spokeswoman for the department. That agreement also prevents any journalist from live-streaming their experience through a service such as Facebook.
Representatives of local TV stations KHQ and KXLY said they were still reviewing the law to see how it might apply to their operations. KHQ is owned by the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.
Beggs said a law was needed, rather than simply a city policy not to contract with film crews like “Live PD,” to ensure that Spokane County sheriff’s deputies operating within city limits would be held to the same standards of consent and review as anyone traveling with Spokane police.
“We had this issue of police using batons, handcuffs, guns, whatever, to compel people to be on reality TV shows, and we thought we’ve got to protect our community members,” he said.
Deputy Mark Gregory, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the county doesn’t receive direct payment from “Live PD” as part of its contract for filming. He couldn’t say whether film crews following deputies had crossed lines into the city limits, but he noted that the entirety of Spokane is within the jurisdiction of Spokane County.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.