Freelance Journalists Sue California Ahead of Gig Worker Law

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The lawsuit, which characterizes Assembly Bill 5 as unconstitutional, was filed by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Inc. and the National Press Photographers Association.

One day after reports that Vox Media is ending business ties with hundreds of freelance writers in the state in part due to Assembly Bill 5, an industry group is suing California on independent journalists' behalf before the law takes into effect.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors, Inc. on Tuesday announced the lawsuit, which was filed by the ASJA and the National Press Photographers Association in federal court in Los Angeles. The aim is to stop the gig economy law AB-5 from changing the livelihoods of independent journalists including writers and photographers. The suit claims that the law is unconstitutional and will devastate the lives of these reporters.

“We have no choice but to go to court to protect the rights of independent writers and freelance journalists as a whole,” ASJA president Milton C. Toby, JD, said in a statement. “The stakes are too high, and we cannot stand by as our members and our colleagues face ill-conceived and potentially career-ending legislation.”

The plaintiffs argue that AB-5 contains "unfair exemptions and carveouts that disfavor freelance journalists" in contrast to other communications professions. Freelance writers have complained since the bill was signed into law in September that the law's allowance for journalists — that they be capped at 35 "submissions" per "putative employer" per year before they must become a part-time or full-time worker — will not in fact force publications to staff these journalists but result in publications ending business ties with California freelancers and ending careers.

“Under the law, a freelancer like me can write 200-plus press releases in a year for a marketing firm, and it’s no problem. But if a newspaper wants me to write a weekly column about local politics, it must put me on staff — a very unlikely prospect — or violate the law. Otherwise I am silenced,” San Diego freelance writer Randy Dotinga, an ASJA board member and former president, said in a statement.

The ASJA and the NPPA are working with pro bono attorneys at the Pacific Legal Foundation.

The ASJA negotiated on behalf of freelance journalists with the bill's author, State Assemblyman Lorena Gonzalez, and her team prior to the passage of the law. "The bill author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, refused to give freelance journalists a workable exemption," the ASJA said in its release.

Gonzalez responded to the lawsuit on Wednesday by saying, "First, it was the Endangered Species Act, then women on corporate boards, and now the Pacific Legal Foundation is attacking California’s landmark workplace rights law. That should come as no surprise to anyone.”

The move follows the recent activism of freelance journalist group California Freelance Writers United, which met in person over the weekend to solidify plans to contest AB-5. California Freelance Writers United has met with legislators and is creating a website and organizing its social media presence to combat the law, which goes into effect Jan. 1.

"California Freelance Writers United applauds ASJA and NPPA's move to sue the state of California in defense of independent writers and freelance journalists' constitutional rights," CAFWU founder Maressa Brown said in a statement. "The language of the complaint makes clear that this misguided, woefully ill-informed legislation threatens the livelihoods of proud independent contractors and is an assault on our rights to free speech, the press, and equal protection."

Read the complaint below.

Dec. 18, 12:37 p.m. Updated with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez's response.