California Outlaws Freelance Journalism

A new law passed in California effectively outlaws freelance journalism by capping the total number of articles a freelance journalist may sell to 35 articles per year. This law will go into effect 1 January 2020. This is a problem for freelance Journalists who regular produce up to 5 articles a day to make ends meat.

Assembly Bill 5 originally would have restricted the number of articles to 26, an arbitrary number selected by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and her team who decided that a weekly columnist sounded like a part-time worker. If a freelance journalist only wrote a weekly column they would generate 52 articles in a year. Gonzalez then chose to halve that number bringing her to the initial number of 26 articles. This restriction was met with complaints from freelance journalists who stated that it would be impossible to be employed as a freelance journalist at all with that kind of restriction. In response Gonzales raised the number to 35.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez

This bill is part of a larger group of legislation that is aimed at taking out the gig and freelance economy, targeting Uber, lift, Door-Dash and similar companies. Gonzales said that she believes this type of regulation will encourage gig economy employers to hire their freelancers as full time employees with benefits. Industry experts say that this law will the exact opposite and represents a gross lack of understanding of the industry this law was meant to regulate.

Namely, news companies that employ freelance journalists are not hiring them in place of full time staff. They hire them for very limited and specific work and do not need or want to hire someone full time for that specific service. As an example, CNN might want to hire a freelancer who lives in a specific area or who has specialty knowledge related to a specific story.

At the same time, freelance journalists often do not want to be hired full time by a news company. Some people are drawn to jobs in the "gig economy" including Uber, Lift, Door-Dash and freelance journalism because they are free to set their own schedules. People with disabilities, stay at home moms, or people who regularly travel or take care of elderly family members are often unable to work full time with set hours and quotas.

This bill worked its way through the state congress for over a year without the news media raising the alarm. Journalists and the general public only heard about it after it was passed. Today thousands of freelance journalists are waking up to find that come January 2020, their jobs will no longer exist in California. Already media companies are making plans to stop hiring freelancer from California. They will still be hiring freelancers, just not form California.

This seems to many people to be a clear violation of the 1st amendment that restricts the government from making any law that would limit the freedom of speech and of the press. A common misconception is that the term "press" means the "news media". However in historical context the term "press" refers to the printing press, and mean that you cannot restrict a person from printing and publishing the written word in addition to the spoken word. This protection of course includes the news media and a freelance journalist's ability to print as many articles as they like in as many ways as they like. This law will very likely be challenged in court and very well could result in an expensive class action lawsuit for the state of California.

This bill was clearly meant to benefit the unions that are negatively affected by the freelance "gig economy". When a union of journalists conduct a strike the news companies often hire freelancers to fill in, mitigating the effect of the union. This was very likely the impetus behind Assembly Bill 5. Unions have made similar complaints about Uber and Lift who are able to provide the same service as a taxi driver at a far lower price and with no influence from the union.

Freelance journalists now are scrambling to protest this law but there likely will be no preventing the law going into effect at this point. The question that remains is "what happens when you publish that 36th article?". Will you be fined? Will you jailed? For how long? Has the California government even considered that they effectively wielded the government's use of lethal force in the case that someone were to rebel against such an unconstitutional law? Whatever the punishment is journalists must stand up to this law and face it. The first time the state of California attempts to enforce this law they will then have to defend the indefensible in court. That will leave us with only one remaining question. "Can a state go Bankrupt? or will the plaintiffs now own California?"


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