Texas Outlaws TV Crews at the Intersection of Free Speech and Public Policy

June 1, 2021 | Insights

By Joel Glover

On May 26, 2021, Governor Abbott signed HB 54, a new law prohibiting the production of police ride-along reality television programs. It permanently halts the production of shows like Live PD, COPS, and (name notwithstanding) Alaska State Troopers, versions of which have aired with varying degrees of acclaim and ridicule for decades.

Named Javier Ambler’s Law, HB 54 provides that “[a] law enforcement agency may not authorize a person to accompany and film a peace officer acting in the line of duty for the purpose of producing a reality television program.” A “reality television program” is defined as a “nonfictional television program that features the same live subjects over the course of more than one episode primarily for entertainment purposes . . . .” In an attempt to narrow the law’s reach, it expressly excludes “reporting on a matter of public concern by a journalist” as journalist is defined by the Code of Criminal Procedure, thanks in large part to the Texas Association of Broadcasters and Stacy Allen in Jackson Walker’s Austin office.

Its origin has tragic roots. Javier Ambler, the new law’s namesake, died of heart failure after being tased and forcibly detained by a Williamson County sheriff’s deputy following a 20-minute chase. The alleged offense was Ambler’s failure to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic. A film crew for Live PD accompanied the deputy and captured the entire ordeal, a condition that bill sponsors cite as the reason for the heightened response leading to Ambler’s death.

Citing a report from the Austin-American Statesman, the Bill Analysis says that Javier Ambler’s Law is necessary because “violent encounters between Williamson County sheriff’s deputies and civilians nearly doubled in the year after Live PD cameras began following deputies.” It warns that “[t]he presence of production crews during police operations blurs the lines of reality and entertainment” and leads to more intense police encounters than would otherwise occur.

Proponents argue that this bill will keep civilians like Ambler out of harm’s way by banning the source of the harm. In their view, policing is not entertainment, and government action was overdue to enforce that point. Plus, they note, journalists are still allowed access to law enforcement on matters of public concern. But HB 54’s critics are skeptical of any prior restraint on speech, even if there were compelling reasons.

Should it be unlawful for reality television producers to cover a subject if they wish to do so? In most other contexts, the answer would be an easy no. Even knowing the facts about Javier Ambler’s death, First Amendment purists scratch their heads about whether this is a necessary or appropriate legislative move.

Should it be unlawful for reality television producers to cover a subject if they wish to do so? In most other contexts, the answer would be an easy no.

Is there a balance to strike? Should the media worry whether a justifiable first step will lead to a heavy-handed tenth step in government-controlled speech? If left unchallenged, could the legislature allude to Ambler’s Law as justification for future prior restraints on public policy bases less compelling than this one? Time will tell.

For now, production companies should know that the days of reality law enforcement television in Texas have ended.

Meet Joel

Joel R. Glover is an attorney in the Trial & Appellate Litigation practice of Jackson Walker’s Houston office. Joel represents clients throughout the United States in media and entertainment litigation, trademark and copyright infringement litigation, energy litigation, and financial services litigation.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.