Texas Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) confirmed last Friday that he is no longer seeking a public hearing for House Bill 2918, a measure that would have made it illegal for citizens and independent media to record police activity within 25 feet.
HB 2918 proposed a 25-foot “buffer zone” between citizen recording and police activity or, as Villalba described it, a “halo.” For a citizen recording while also carrying a handgun, the “halo” would be expanded to 100 feet. An individual filming inside the 25-foot area could face up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, while a person filming while carrying a handgun inside the expanded 100-foot zone could face up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
One notable provision of the bill would have exempted one group from Villalba’s proposed “halo”: traditional news media. HB 2918 would have allowed FCC-licensed radio and TV stations and qualified magazines and newspapers to film police activity as closely as necessary, allowing them exclusive access to incidents that would not be granted to independent media.
In March, the Dallas Morning News had reported that 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.”
Villalba later came under fire for telling his staff to block HB 2918’s skeptics and critics from his Twitter account after he had received an influx of questions and criticisms. Villalba admitted that “my instruction to staff was, ‘If you get something at all that looks like a troll, delete it.’ That’s why folks who might otherwise be legitimate news sources might have been blocked.” To handle the outpouring of criticism, he also reportedly told his staff to “delete all voice mails without listening to them. Do not answer the phones today. Leave the office and work from home if you like.”
Despite the negative responses from citizens and civil liberty groups, Villalba remained steadfast in his belief that HB 2918 would protect police. “We thought when we wrote our bill that we were making it safe not only for the police officers by that [25-foot] buffer zone, but also for those individuals that are seeking to keep law enforcement accountable to give them a safe zone to film,” Villalba said.
According to the Dallas Morning News, Villalba said that the Dallas Police Association and the Texas Municipal Police Association had originally proposed the idea of a protected area for police officers. However, Villalba did say that legislation is not likely to be successful, acknowledging that “I think the public has spoken very loudly.”