Journalism Associations Urge NYS Gov. Hochul to Veto Body Armor Bill
The Deadline Club of New York
c/o Salmagundi Club
47 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
June 5, 2022
The Honorable Kathy Hochul
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224
RE: Journalism groups urge veto of bills to limit body armor sales
Dear Governor Hochul:
A well-intentioned bill to restrict the sale of body armor that awaits your signature is seriously flawed and could leave journalists without the necessary equipment to safely report news from the front lines of wars, civil unrest and active crime scenes. We, the undersigned organizations that represent newspapers and journalists who sometimes put their lives on the line to provide the news on which our democracy depends, urge you to veto the measure.
The legislation – A.10497 and its Senate companion, S.9407-B – was approved by both chambers of the Legislature on June 2, as part of a comprehensive package of gun legislation that was publicly unveiled just two days before, following a horrific mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14.
We would have preferred to work directly with the sponsors of the legislation, who were understandably moved to address weak spots in the state’s gun laws that the Buffalo massacre brought to light. But the compressed timeline of the legislative process in this case made that impossible. We therefore turn to you.
The body armor worn by the Buffalo shooter while committing his murderous acts may be a rarity for perpetrators of the mass shootings and other gun violence that have tragically become endemic to our country, but it is standard equipment for journalists in potentially hostile environments.
As the nation’s media capital, New York is home to numerous news outlets in all media as well as thousands of journalists, including freelancers. Body armor is a necessary safety precaution for journalists not only when they go into war zones, but also for covering street demonstrations that may turn violent and even active crime scenes involving guns. The need for protection is perhaps greatest for visual journalists, whose news need to get the most telling and powerful images often puts them in the greatest danger.
Video and still photographers say they routinely keep body armor and tactical helmets in their cars in case they suddenly encounter dangerous situations on the job. They wore them pretty much every day to cover protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Freelancers, who must fend for themselves, also rely on body armor as was the case in 2014 when a New York-based freelance print journalist preparing to cover fighting in eastern Ukraine bought his armor online, which the pending legislation would prohibit.
By limiting the sale of body armor, hereafter referred to as body vests, A.10497 would, at the very least, create a cloud of uncertainty for journalists and their safety when their work takes them to potential danger zones. At worst, it would leave them unprotected, forcing news organizations and individual journalists into a Hobson’s choice of not covering important news or doing so recklessly.
The bill exempts people in an “eligible profession” from the ban on body vests, but journalists are not included in that category. Even if they were, finding a legal definition for “journalist” in our free society where the First Amendment makes freedom of the press available to all has always been difficult and cumbersome at best.
As the bill is currently written, the safety of journalists in danger zones would be left to the discretion of the New York Department of State, which would be endowed with the authority to decide whether journalism qualifies as an “eligible profession.” Even if journalism received the blanket designation of “eligible profession,” individual journalists and news organizations seeking to purchase body vest still would have to affirmatively prove that they are engaged in this work. What would qualify as proof for a body vest vendor who could face criminal liability for a wrong decision? A byline or photo credit in a newspaper or online publication? A mention on a masthead? A police- or government-issued credential?
What’s more, the bill even exposes journalists and news organizations who have met the putative body vest qualifications to criminal liability if they loan their equipment to other journalists, such as freelancers, going into danger zones who may not be able to show adequate proof, however that term is ultimately defined.
In short, the legislation would force journalists and news organizations to navigate an unwieldy bureaucratic maze just to safely do their jobs. But most troubling of all, it gives constitutionally dubious de facto control to the government for deciding who, if anyone, may safely engage in the gathering of important news.
Given the bill’s limited public safety value – How many perpetrators of gun violence have worn body armor and would any of them have been deterred by its lack of availability? – and its detrimental impact on news gathering, we believe the best option is to veto this measure. It also should be noted that wearing a body vest while committing a violent crime with a firearm, as was the case in Buffalo, is already a felony by itself under Penal Law § 270.20.
The only possible acceptable alternative, albeit a flawed one, would require a significant overhaul of the bill. It would need a clear, unambiguous and generous exemption that would legally enable any journalist or news organization to acquire needed body armor without having to provide documentation as a prerequisite, and to share that equipment with other journalists.
Such an overhaul would require a definition of journalist, which is never perfect, but which does exist in New York’s “shield law,” Civil Rights Law – CVR § 79-h(a)(6), which states:
“Professional journalist” shall mean one who, for gain or livelihood, is engaged in gathering, preparing, collecting, writing, editing, filming, taping or photographing of news intended for a newspaper, magazine, news agency, press association or wire service or other professional medium or agency which has as one of its regular functions the processing and researching of news intended for dissemination to the public; such person shall be someone performing said function either as a regular employee or as one otherwise professionally affiliated for gain or livelihood with such medium of communication.
If such an overhaul is the preferred option, we would be happy to work with your staff and/or the original sponsors of the legislation.
But we would again urge you to reconsider the wisdom of enacting a measure whose very limited public safety value is more than offset by its detrimental impact on news gathering, the public’s right to know, and ultimately, democracy.
The Deadline Club
On behalf of:
Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
SPJ’s Long Island chapter, the Press Club of Long Island
SPJ Region 1 Coordinator Chris Vaccaro
New York News Publishers Association
New York Press Photographers Association
National Press Photographers Association
Radio Television Digital News Association
New York State Broadcasters Association, Inc.