Press access bill heads to Senate

Everybody and his mother should know the first amendment of the constitution, or at least have a vague idea about what it says: That we have a right as citizens to free speech, in its myriad manifestations.

Included in free speech is freedom of the press: The freedom for newspapers, TV stations, websites, and even individuals to speak, write, publish, or record information about what’s happening in the world around them.

This right has been upheld by the Supreme Court since before your great-grandfather was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. It’s almost incomprehensible, then, that free access by the media to state prisons is still widely restricted, especially when said prisons are funded by $10 billion of California taxpayer’s hard-earned paychecks.

It’s not as though nobody has tried to change this. Eight attempts to change the law and give the press greater access to prisons have been vetoed by three different California governors.

Although no one is ready to bet the farm on it, it would appear that this time around could be different.

After passing in the State Assembly last week, backers of the bill — known as the California Prisons: Media Access” bill, or AB 1270 — are feeling more confident about its chances of being signed into law.

Even past opponents like the California Department of Corrections and several victim-rights groups are now, if not actively supporting the bill, then at least not aggressively lobbying against it as they did with past efforts.

The proposed law would allow journalists greater access to prisoners, who would be able to hold random, unscheduled interviews. Prison officials would be barred from retaliating against any prisoner who talked to reporters.

The catalyst for this latest legislative push may have been an inmate hunger strike last year. Reporters who tried to cover this explosive story found it was almost impossible to get unbiased information about what was happening.

Pending approval by the Senate and Governor Jerry Brown, this kind of infringement of free speech could be quickly put behind us.