Timely Tip: A Snapshot of California Media Laws
By Nikki Moore
Journalists and newspapers frequently rely on a few particular laws:
The California Public Records Act is the law that gives the public the right to access government records. This right is also enshrined in California’s constitution, Article 1, Section 3(b)(1). The CPRA is an incredibly powerful newsgathering tool that allows journalists to ask for any documents held by the government. While there are exemptions to the CPRA, these exemptions are not always asserted properly. That’s why it can be helpful to contact CNPA—we will let you know if the records you seek should be provided.
The Ralph M. Brown Act is the law that requires government agencies to do the public’s business in public. That means that your local city council or school board must allow the public to attend all meetings, and to comment at these meetings. The Brown Act also requires these meetings be announced ahead of time, typically three days. The notice must include agenda items detailing each issue to be discussed at the meeting. Journalists covering local politics monitor these agendas to learn if newsworthy items will be discussed. Failure to properly notice issues could result in the reversal of any action by an agency. It’s also often newsworthy that an agency is failing to comply with the laws. CNPA can help you determine if the Brown Act is violated, and what remedies might be available to the public for such violation.
The California Shield Law is a significant protection for journalists: it allows them to protect confidential sources, and it prevents lawyers from hauling them into court to testify about their newsgathering activity. Different rules apply depending on the context of each situation, but whenever someone tries to force a reporter to turn over her notes or a photographer to release his unpublished photos, the Shield Law could apply. Often, authority figures rely on the assumption that a journalist won’t know this law, but don’t be intimidated. If you face this situation, state that you believe the Shield Law applies and get CNPA on the phone to talk you through how to proceed.
— Nikki Moore is staff attorney at the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Sacramento. If you have a general legal question regarding newsgathering, call the CNPA Legal Helpline at (916) 288-6006.