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.
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.
California law, like laws in other states, already bars use of an electronic device to listen in on or record people without their permission.
The new measure, authored by Assembly member Jimmy Gomez with the backing of Planned Parenthood, protects health-care providers in particular and would prohibit the intentional disclosure of such recordings, video or audio, without the consent of all parties “in any forum, including, but not limited to, Internet Web sites and social media, or for any purpose …”
Violation would be punishable by a fine, a one-year jail term or both for a first offense and by a potentially greater fine, a one-year jail term or both for subsequent offenses.
“After the video smear campaign last summer, we experienced a ninefold increase in violence against our providers and our health centers,” Beth Parker, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told the Los Angeles Times.
“With the Internet and the tremendous wildfire nature in which news can be spread now through social media, we need to have a crime against distribution by those in particular who did the illegal recording,” Parker said.
The legislation is opposed not only by antiabortion groups but by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for free speech and civil liberties in the digital world.
The Los Angeles Times editorialized against it as well, noting that the prohibition “would apply regardless of what the healthcare provider was discussing — not just sensitive details about patients, but also private conversations about fees and billing practices, drug marketers, or plans for the weekend. Why a healthcare provider merits special protection even when discussing things that don’t involve patient privacy is mystifying.”
After an outcry from news organizations, which feared the measure would be applied to them, it was amended to make it clear that news organizations would not be prosecuted if they did not participate in the recording.
The antiabortion activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, used hidden cameras, fake driver’s licenses and mock Facebook pages in an attempt to prove that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue left over from abortions for scientific research.
Daleiden spent 30 months posing as a representative from a tissue procurement company, lunching with top Planned Parenthood executives and gaining access to private areas of clinics. Last summer, he released several edited videos as well as longer footage of his secretly recorded encounters.
No wrongdoing was found by Planned Parenthood, but a grand jury in Texas brought charges against Daleiden and Merritt of tampering with public records. Those charges were dropped in July.
According to the Times, Brown’s signature is not a “sure thing,” as he has opposed additions to the state’s criminal code.