A House Democrat has introduced legislation that would enable the federal government to prosecute people who assault journalists on the job. The lawmaker asserted that U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric towards the media had created a hostile environment for reporters nationwide.
On Feb. 5, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California introduced the Journalist Protection Act, a bill that would create federal penalties for attacking a journalist: up to three years in prison for causing bodily injury to a reporter and up to six years for causing serious bodily injury, Forbes reported.
“President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere,” Swalwell said in a statement. “It’s not just about labeling 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.”
In February 2017, Trump took to social media to assert that media networks that he believed were too critical of his administration were public enemies.
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing [The New York Times], [NBC News], [ABC News], [CBS News], [CNN]) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!” Trump tweeted.
“Not all attacks on journalists this year have been committed by Trump supporters, but the fact remains that rhetoric emanating from the world’s most powerful office is stoking an environment in which these attacks proliferate,” Swalwell continued. “We must send a loud, clear message that such violence won’t be tolerated.”
Swalwell listed several examples of journalists being attacked since Trump’s election. In May 2017, reporter Frank John Tristan and two photographers were punched and shoved during a “Make America Great Again” rally in Huntington Beach, California, according to OC Weekly.
That same month, GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana allegedly body-slammed The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the day before his election. Gianforte told local police that Jacobs had fabricated the assault but apologized after an audio recording of the incident was released, The Guardian reported.
The NewsGuild estimated that at least 44 reporters were attacked while gathering news in the U.S. during 2017, according to KTVU.
On Feb. 8, visiting legal fellow Amy Swearer of the conservative Heritage Foundation blasted Swalwell’s bill in an opinion piece, asserting that the legislation was unnecessary.
“Overall, there’s no evidence of a gaping loophole in criminal law that allows people to get away with assaulting journalists,” Swearer wrote in The Daily Signal. “Despite Swalwell’s suggestion, state law enforcement officials are already fully capable of punishing those who cause bodily injury to another person.”
Swearer also asserted that the U.S. was already a safe nation for reporters, noting: “In 2017, approximately 70 journalists were killed worldwide and another 262 imprisoned in connection with their journalistic work. Not one of those deaths or imprisonments occurred in the United States.”
On Feb. 11, Swalwell said that he was concerned that hostilities towards journalists would escalate and that some jurisdictions would not be inclined to hold attackers accountable.
“I’m afraid that many journalists will continue to come under attack, and I want to make sure that if its politically unpopular in a particular part of the country to prosecute someone who abuses a journalist that there’s a federal backstop,” Swalwell told CNN.
“This would only allow prosecution if a journalist was physically attacked,” Swalwell added. “It doesn’t limit anyone from criticizing the press.”
The congressman’s bill has been co-sponsored by 12 fellow House Democrats. Swalwell said that his efforts to draw Republican co-sponsors had so far been rebuffed.