Biden signs off on 'spy draft'

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Here are some of the most important stories we’re following from the U.S. and around the world. If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please forward it to friends and family. If someone has forwarded you this newsletter, please subscribe here.

Last week, we warned of a dangerous new bill that would expand the surveillance law Section 702 of FISA. Unfortunately, the Senate approved the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act, or RISAA, over the weekend, officially reauthorizing Section 702 without any significant reforms and with dangerous expansions of the intelligence agencies’ spy powers.

President Biden quickly signed the bill into law, authorizing intelligence agencies to essentially “institute a spy draft” that could require ordinary Americans and businesses to help the government surveil online communications, including those of journalists.

RISAA raises the risk that American journalists who communicate with foreign sources may face surveillance under Section 702. Sources who want to talk to American journalists won’t know whether their newsroom might be bugged. Even Senators who voted for RISAA acknowledged that it was poorly drafted and promised reforms. We must make them keep their word before RISAA can be abused by this administration or the next one.

TikTok ban passes, weakens press freedom

On Wednesday, Biden also signed legislation that would force the Chinese-based owner of TikTok to sell the app or face a ban in the United States.

We’re not here to tell journalists — or anyone else — to use TikTok. (Though if you do, be sure to check out our security tips for newsrooms that use the app.) In fact, there’s plenty of reason to recommend against it.

But banning TikTok is wildly unconstitutional. Worse yet, it could set a precedent that empowers the government to censor or outlaw news outlets, too.

The TikTok ban will almost certainly be quickly challenged in court. Read the five strongest arguments for why the law is unconstitutional on our website.

New York approves journalism funding law

With mass layoffs of journalists and shuttering of news organizations, some have asked whether journalism is headed toward an “extinction-level event.” Thankfully, some policymakers are finding creative ways to help fund local news media.

In New York, a new law makes the state the first in the nation to give news outlets a tax break for hiring or employing journalists. It’s a model that other states and local governments throughout the U.S., and even the federal government, should follow. Additional ways to fund local news that are under consideration by lawmakers in other jurisdictions also hold promise.

Read more on our website about government policies that can fund local news while still maintaining journalistic independence.

Accountability needed in Alabama

Almost six months ago, the arrests of Alabama reporter Don Fletcher and newspaper publisher Sherry Digmon made national headlines. Last week, charges that Fletcher and Digmon broke the law by reporting on a grand jury subpoena were finally dismissed.

That’s good news. But answers and accountability are still needed. As we explained on our website, the case — which rivaled the raid of the Marion County Record in Kansas for the most egregious U.S. press freedom violation of 2023 — was frivolous from the start.

What we’re reading

Photographer arrested while filming pro-Palestinian protest at University of Texas (U.S. Press Freedom Tracker). Police departments paid millions in settlement dollars for unlawful arrests of journalists covering protests in 2020, but they haven’t learned their lesson. The Fox 7 Austin journalist should never have been arrested for doing his job.

Lawrence journalism students convince district to reverse course on AI surveillance they say violates freedom of press (The Lawrence Times). High school journalists went toe-to-toe with school district officials — and won — when they pushed back on plans to monitor their electronic files using artificial intelligence.

How large parts of Trump’s trial are playing out in the shadows (Politico). The public shouldn’t be kept in the dark about former President Donald Trump’s unprecedented criminal trial. Journalists need contemporaneous access to court documents to report about it fully and accurately.

FPF Live

On May 2 at noon ET, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, our Deputy Editor Adam Glenn will be moderating a panel discussing the intersections of press freedom and the environment, with our Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus, freelance journalist Carlos Berríos Polanco, and Halle Parker, journalist and Society of Environmental Journalists board member. You can register here.

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California police violate press rights

California police are violating state law “right and left” during the protests and police raids on campus encampments. That’s according to University of California, Irvine, School of Law professor Susan Seager. We interviewed her in the wake of arrests of two California journalists in recent weeks, among other press freedom violations. Suppression of the press isn’t supposed to happen anywhere in America, but especially not in California, where it’s explicitly against the law for police to intentionally interfere with journalists covering a demonstration.

Cops on campus arrest, bully journalists

As police stormed several college campuses in recent days and arrested hundreds of students protesting the Israel-Gaza war, the free press was also under attack. Texas Department of Public Safety officers arrested Carlos Sanchez, a photojournalist for the local Fox affiliate, as he was covering protests at the University of Texas at Austin. But police can’t seem to make up their minds about what, exactly, they want us to believe Sanchez did wrong, repeatedly bringing then dropping charges against the photographer.

‘Spy draft’ bill threatens press freedom

The Senate is dangerously close to passing a bill that would allow intelligence agencies to essentially “institute a spy draft” and order everyone from dentists to plumbers to surveil their patients and customers’ communications. The RISAA would also allow the government to order commercial landlords who rent space to media outlets, or contractors who service newsrooms, to help it spy on American journalists’ communications with foreign sources.