In a time when journalists, including our members across the country, are facing an unprecedented number of physical attacks and threats to their lives while seeking and reporting the truth, one of the most beautiful states of our union took action by proposing a new law that would significantly increase the penalty for assaulting reporters and photojournalists.
Montana State Rep. Tom Woods (D-Bozeman) has introduced House Bill 384, the “Protect the Free Press Act,” which would increase the potential sentence for physically assaulting a journalist from its current $500 fine to a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to one year in a county jail.
Increasingly, our members report taking increased precautions or feeling apprehensive due to the increased number of attacks on their peers, and RTDNA has increased training on physical safety for our members, especially for the growing number of multimedia journalists who are working solo.
A bill like this won’t entirely stop these attacks from happening, but would create an environment that acknowledges the increased risk and correctly outlines punitive measures for those who don’t respect journalists as people.
It was in Montana in May of 2017 when then-congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs as Jacobs attempted to ask him a question about legislation at his campaign headquarters.
Jacobs’ audio recording of the encounter captured Gianforte exclaiming, “I’m sick and tired of you guys” seconds before the candidate threw Jacobs to the floor, breaking his glasses and leaving him with minor injuries.
In June 2017, Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for the attack on Jacobs. He received a six-month deferred jail term and spent no time behind bars. He was also ordered to pay $358 in fines and fees, perform 40 hours of community service and attend 20 hours of anger management counseling. Gianforte also paid Jacobs $4,464.97 in restitution and donated $50,000 to a press freedom group.
He also won his special election and subsequently was reelected to Congress.
In a statement at the time, I said:
It is concerning, to say the least, that a public figure, or anyone, in Montana, or anywhere else, can physically assault a reporter for merely asking questions on behalf of the public and then receive a light sentence. We certainly wouldn’t want someone to receive harsher punishment for assaulting reporters than they would for assaulting anyone else, but in this case, the victim of the assault, who just so happened to be a reporter, was actually injured.
RTDNA fully supports Montana House Bill 384, and we urge the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature to adopt it.
Though the political and ideological divide in the United States is as broad and deep as it has been at any time in our nation’s modern history, it would be a great victory for Montanans and all Americans if lawmakers in “Big Sky Country” could come together in a bipartisan way to demonstrate that there is no room for violence in any context, including encounters between journalists and the public officials on whom they report.
RTDNA’s nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force defends against threats to the First Amendment and news media access and helps the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. RTDNA is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats against press freedom in America. Reach out to the task force by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org and contributing to support press freedom.