Do Journalists Need Special Protection?

California Democrat Eric Swalwell has introduced a Journalist Protection Act that seeks to impose unique penalties on those who attack journalists in the course of reporting the news. The bill is explicitly aimed at President Trump:

During his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has created a climate of extreme hostility to the press by describing mainstream media outlets as “a stain on America,” “trying to take away our history and our heritage,” and “the enemy of the American People.” He tweeted a GIF video of himself body-slamming a person with the CNN logo superimposed on that person’s face, and retweeted a cartoon of a “Trump Train” running over a person with a CNN logo as its head.

Such antagonistic communications help encourage others to think, regardless of their views, that violence against people engaged in journalism is more acceptable. …

“President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere,” Swalwell said. “It’s not just about labelling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews – it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence.”

The proposed Act makes it a federal crime, punishable by up to three years in prison, to cause bodily injury to a journalist for the purpose of intimidating or impeding newsgathering. Causing serious bodily under the same circumstances is punishable by up to six years imprisonment.

Of course, an assault causing bodily injury is already a crime under every state’s law. The purpose of the Journalist Protection Act is to confer a status on journalists not enjoyed by other citizens. Causing injury to a journalist would become a federal crime, with considerably harsher sanctions than would normally be imposed in response to minor assaults.

A key element, of course, is the definition of “bodily injury.” The Journalist Protection Act adopts the definitions of bodily injury and serious bodily injury from the section of the federal criminal code relating to tampering with consumer products:

(4) the term “bodily injury” means—

(A) a cut, abrasion, bruise, burn, or disfigurement;
(B) physical pain;
(C) illness;
(D) impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty; or
(E) any other injury to the body, no matter how temporary.

This definition is broad enough to cover incidents so minor that they would not normally be considered appropriate for prosecution. That is, I suppose, the idea. Is there any evidence that journalists need such special protection, or that it is appropriate to single them out? Not that I know of. Based on the experience of the last year or two, there would be considerably more logic to a Republican Congressmen’s Protection Act.


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