Editorials

Fresno councilman revises law that would have criminalized reporters. It’s only right

Mike Karbassi, who was sworn into office Thursday, August 22, 2019, as the newest Fresno City Councilmember, listens to public statements.
Mike Karbassi, who was sworn into office Thursday, August 22, 2019, as the newest Fresno City Councilmember, listens to public statements. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Facing a backlash from Fresno media, City Councilman Mike Karbassi has revised a law he is proposing that would make it illegal for city officials to disclose information from confidential closed sessions or which falls under attorney-client privilege.

In the original bill, Karbassi and a co-sponsor, Councilman Garry Bredefeld, included the possibility that news reporters would face potential misdemeanor penalties if they reported any such information given to them. The person giving out such information would have also faced misdemeanor punishment.

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The new bill continues to bring punishment down on anyone leaking information from closed sessions. But gone is the provision of finding the media guilty of a misdemeanor.

Whistleblower addition

Importantly, Karbassi and Bredefeld added a new provision of whistleblower protection. If a council member or city official believes something illegal is occurring, and that person learns of it through confidential communications, that official would be allowed to disclose the information to law enforcement, which could then investigate as needed.

The Bee recently published a story about City Manager Wilma Quan threatening legal action against the city and demanding an investigation into a council member who she contends has created a hostile work environment. The story was based in part on privileged information The Bee obtained.

Karbassi said that story did not spur this new measure. Rather, he says it is needed to stop leaks and protect taxpayer money.

The measure is tailored in some respects after laws in San Francisco and Oakland, which both outlaw disclosure of confidential information. Those laws only deal with sources leaking the information.

First attempt unconstitutional

The Bee opposed the original law as an unconstitutional overreach, one that clearly violated the newspaper’s 1st Amendment rights to gather and report news. To his credit, Karbassi took that criticism to heart and revised the bill.

The whistleblower provision is also critical. Because government is made up of people, it is imperfect, and sometimes improper things occur. Government workers and elected officials need to know they can challenge decisions, policies and practices they consider illegal or immoral.

At the same time, government sometimes needs to keep information confidential. State laws regarding public information make exemptions when lawsuits involving an agency are involved, or when personnel matters need to be decided. Those are common-sense exceptions.

The new ordinance goes to the City Council on Thursday for introduction, meaning it can be discussed but won’t be voted on. Here is hoping the focus stays where it belongs — on those who improperly release confidential information.

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