A bill that would require civilians to stand back between 25 and 100 feet before recording and documenting police activity, introduced by Texas Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) earlier this month, has caused significant controversy. HB 2918 would create a 25-foot buffer zone around police activity requiring citizens to film outside of that area. For an individual filming while also carrying a handgun, the buffer zone would be extended to 100 feet. A person caught filming inside of the 25-foot zone could face 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine; a person filming while carrying a handgun inside the 100-foot zone could face up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Texas state law currently prohibits people from interfering with police activity.
Villalba wrote on Twitter that he introduced the bill to protect the police. Villalba also insisted that the bill does not prohibit filming. “I thought that was reasonable, 25 feet,” Villalba said. “I measured that out in my office. It didn’t seem to be terribly disruptive. I’m not trying to limit the ability to film. I don’t have any problems with that.”
Attorney Alicia Wagner Calzada pointed out that “When you think about how long 25 feet is, it’s longer than the average pickup truck, it’s longer than the average room, so you could not photograph a police officer within the same room.” Cazalda said some kind of “reasonable buffer” may be acceptable but that 25 feet as a rule is arbitrary. “If you’re sitting in the backseat of a car, and someone pulls over the driver, and you want to shoot a video of the interaction between the driver and the cop, obviously you can’t be twenty-five feet away. But you’re also really not interfering by sitting in the backseat running your cell phone.”
One critical provision in the bill seeks to exempt certain journalists from the proposed buffer zone. FCC-licensed radio and TV stations, regularly published magazines and qualified newspapers would not have to abide by the 25-foot rule.
A statement from the ACLU of Texas criticized Villalba’s bill, stating “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.”
Since the bill’s introduction, Villalba acknowledged to The Dallas Morning News that he should have read the bill closer before filing it, and stated that it has some flaws, such as the language that would subject a violator to arrest. Villalba also admitted there may be a problem with the creating two classes of journalists in his bill and articulated his disapproval of cop-watching groups:
And he said he will work on the bill language that creates two classes of video-makers- one employed by established media and the other consisting of everyone else. Villalba conceded the value of well-meant citizens with cameras and bloggers in pajamas, those people who school themselves on issues and bring things to light over social media. He said he doesn’t want to put the screws to them. What his bill IS aimed at, Villalba said, are cop-watch groups that consist of “agitators posing as journalists in order to interfere” with officers doing their job.
“They follow the police scanner, and as soon as they hear about an arrest,” Villalba said, “they immediately get in the vicinity of the officer and start taunting the officer while the arrest is occurring.”