California prepares to criminalize sting videos against Planned Parenthood

This doesn’t even sound like a headline which could appear anywhere but on the front page of The Onion, but it’s true. The California legislature is putting the finishing touches on a bill which will make it illegal to secretly record meetings and conversations specifically with health care providers… by which they mean Planned Parenthood. We’re not talking about recordings made without the knowledge of the speaker which are then used in court. This law can send you to jail for simply creating the recordings and releasing them on the internet. (Washington Post)

The California legislature is near final approval of a bill that would make it a crime, punishable by a jail sentence, to carry out and distribute undercover video or audio stings against Planned Parenthood and other health-care groups.

The measure was inspired by two California antiabortion activists who made undercover videos of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood. The project prompted multiple investigations by Congress and states, none of which found wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood.

The bill was approved by the California state Senate on Wednesday and has broad support in the Assembly, which passed an earlier version and is expected to concur in several Senate amendments before sending it to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

This bill is openly advertised as a response to the publicity generated by the Center for Medical Progress which famously published sting videos of Planned Parenthood executives last year. Two of the key actors from CMP were brought up on charges as a result, but primarily for having a fake driver’s license and other assertions of fraud in setting up their credentials as purchasers of fetal tissue for medical research. This bill skips right past those technicalities and makes it a crime to even record what people are saying for publication.

There are more problems with this legislation than you can shake a stick at. It’s already being opposed by groups as diverse as pro-life organizations, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. While it’s understandable how secret recordings can’t be used against you in a court of law unless a warrant is issued to law enforcement for a wire tap or bug, none of those rules seem to apply here. Particularly when you’re in an open setting like a restaurant, what you say in a public space might well be heard by anyone. (That’s a venue used often by CMP in their sting operation.) How is that protected under any definition of privacy?

The laws they already have on the books regarding such recordings are problematic enough, but how does California justify extra legislation which only applies to the privacy of health care organizations? Why is their speech more private and protected than anyone else’s? A stiff jail term and large fine for recording what someone says in a public space seems not only unfair, but absurd. And applying it only to Planned Parenthood takes us into the realm of dystopian science fiction.