New California Law Could Jail Health Care Journalists, Whistleblowers

Published November 14, 2016

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has signed into law Assembly Bill 1671, which could send journalists and whistleblowers to jail for exposing wrongdoing in the health care industry.

A previously enacted law forbids “a person to intentionally eavesdrop upon or record a confidential communication” without the consent of all parties involved, according to the State Assembly Legislative Counsel’s digest of the bill.

AB 1671 would additionally “make it a crime for a person who unlawfully eavesdrops upon or records a confidential communication as described above with a health care provider … to intentionally disclose or distribute the contents” without the consent of all parties, unless the person recording does so to capture evidence of certain crimes, the digest states.

The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), passed the State Assembly 52–26 and the Senate 26–12. Brown signed the bill into law on September 30.

Violators could face up to three years in jail under the law.

Planned Parenthood supported the bill, according to a Los Angeles Times editorial published on August 31. Undercover reporters for the Center for Medical Progress filmed Planned Parenthood agents casually discussing the harvest and sale of fetal body parts and posted the videos online in 2015.

Strange Bedfellows

Pro-life groups opposed to AB 1671 were joined by the Los Angeles Times and the American Civil Liberties Union, two organizations historically supportive of abortion rights. The Times condemned the legislation for further criminalizing an act already outlawed and for pandering to a narrow political faction.

“But make no mistake, this measure would heap more criminal and civil penalties on making a secret recording—an act that’s already prohibited by state law, even when done in the public interest—simply to satisfy an interest group popular among Sacramento Democrats,” the Times editors wrote.

The law could endanger patients by insulating bad-faith health care providers from potential whistleblowers, the editorial states.

“[The legislation] would further disincentivize potential whistleblowers from recording malfeasance when they witness it—for example, a patient who sees her doctor handing out opioid prescriptions like candy, or a farm worker who catches a veterinarian approving a sick cow for the slaughterhouse,” the editors wrote.

Calls for Transparency

State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who voted against AB 1671, says the law discriminates against citizen-watchdogs who expose the sordid habits of taxpayer-funded health care organizations.

“Like I stated on the Senate Floor, when 60 Minutes uses a hidden camera and discovers a unique story, it’s called ‘outstanding journalism,'” Moorlach said. “But when a private citizen does it and unmasks a very, very unpleasant truth about a taxpayer-backed organization, it somehow becomes a call for legislation. It just doesn’t compute.”

The processes of government-funded programs and organizations should be transparent to taxpayers, Moorlach says.

“California residents have a right to know what types of activities their public money is supporting,” Moorlach said. “As a representative of the people, I am accountable to my constituents. They deserve this transparency, and this particular [law] impedes that right.”

Dustin Siggins ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

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