Press advocates decry Florida’s ‘Safety over Soundbites’ bill

Friday, April 2, 1999

Florida press advocates are denouncing a bill that would punish reporters and others who broadcast police tactical teams in action as a textbook case of prior restraint and an attempt to limit core speech.

But they admit that Senate Bill 166, which passed the Florida Senate last week, isn't designed specifically to restrict press freedoms but to protect law enforcement officers.

“No one doubts that's the motivation, and that's a good motivation,” said David Braylow, attorney for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. “Frankly, if there is a way to make their jobs safer, then we should all stand behind it. But this way doesn't make their lives and jobs any safer, but it does violate core principles of the First Amendment.”

Nicknamed the “Safety over Soundbites” bill, the measure would make it a felony in Florida to authorize the broadcast of any type of live audio or video transmission depicting a tactical law enforcement operation. The bill also would forbid the direct contact of anyone involved in a police standoff without authorization by the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction.

The Senate approved the bill on March 21 with a 35-3 vote. The measure is now before the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee as House Bill 141.

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she drafted the bill in response to the Hank Earl Carr hostage situation last year and the media coverage that followed the Miami slaying of fashion designer Gianni Versace.

In the Carr case, news reporters phoned the suspect while he was holed up in a Brownsville gas station holding a clerk hostage. Police said they couldn't use the phone to reach Carr, who had fled to the gas station after killing his son, two Tampa police officers and a state trooper. He later shot and killed himself.

Police also said that live media reports hindered efforts track down Versace's killer.

“I was very disturbed by the media's blatant disregard for safety in both the Versace murder investigation in Miami and the police pursuit and hostage negotiations with Hank Earl Carr in my district,” Brown-Waite said in a statement. “In both of those cases, tactical operations were jeopardized and police officers were endangered because of irresponsible press coverage.”

But press advocates said the measure would create an unconstitutional prior restraint on First Amendment press rights because it would allow government officials to determine what aspects of a police tactical operation may be covered.

Braylow said the bill would be applied so broadly that police officers could restrict coverage of many events. He said that the bill would have made live coverage of the Chicago Seven demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 a felony punishable by up to five years in jail or a $5,000 fine.

Law enforcement officials support the bill, saying it creates a fair way to allow press coverage and to maintain safety at the same time.

“You have to balance allowing the press access to major crime events with the impact it has on your operations and investigations,” Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander said in a statement. “In the case of Hank Earl Carr, the press went too far in its attempt to keep the public informed and, in fact, became the news.”

South Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Barreto says the bill doesn't hurt press rights nor is it a vindictive measure.

“We encourage the media to help us fight the good fight,” Barreto said. “What we don't want is the media interfering with critical life or death situations such as kidnapping or hostage situations.”

But Braylow says a serious technical error in the bill would allow the officer in charge of a tactical operation to determine when the media may cover an operation live.

“If the event is over, but the officer wants to cool potential coverage, it could be two days from then before the officer allows coverage,” he said. “News is a perishable item. When there is an event like a fire or hostage situation, in our day and age, its importance is immediate.

“The bill deprives the public the immediacy of the event,” he said. “When they are looking for Kosovo coverage, they don't want images that are two days old. They want it now. And that's the nature of what [the news media does] in this electronic age.”