A legislative showdown in California pits Catholic officials, free speech advocates, and pro-life activists against a bill sponsored by Planned Parenthood that would criminalize distributing secretly recorded conversations involving health care providers.

Assembly Bill 1671, which is now headed to the state senate, would make it a crime to disclose or distribute an illegally recorded communication with a health care provider, and would also criminalize efforts to commission such illegal recordings.

The bill is sponsored by Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, the state branch of Planned Parenthood, which faced investigations after the pro-life activist group the Center for Medical Progress released secretly recorded conversations involving Planned Parenthood officials allegedly discussing the sale of fetal tissue last summer.

The most recently amended version of AB 1671 would make it a crime to disclose or distribute intentionally, “in any manner, in any forum, including, but not limited to, Internet Web sites and social media, or for any purpose, the contents of a confidential communication with a health care provider that is obtained by that person.”

In California, existing laws make it illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties involved.

But current privacy laws in California are not extensive enough to protect health care providers, according to Ana Sandoval, Communications Director at Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

“The law was passed in 1967, before the Internet and before technology that allows the distribution of electronic communications to millions at the touch of a button,” said Sandoval.

“As Planned Parenthood learned so painfully last summer, it is the disclosure and distribution, not the taping, that causes the real harm to the personal privacy rights and the safety of health care providers,” said Sandoval.

The proposed legislation is intended to “close a loophole” in current law, according to Annabel Snider, Legislative Director for Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill.

Snider pointed to laws in other states that prohibit distributing illegally obtained material, but admitted that they are not “precisely identical” to AB 1671.

“This is not an attack on the First Amendment and freedom of speech,” Snider said. “This is about protecting patients and their privacy.”

But opponents of the bill say that if it is passed, it would establish a new precedent in undermining freedom of speech.

“It’s criminalizing a portion of journalism,’ said Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter and lecturer at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Journalism.

Peele says that he sympathizes with Planned Parenthood’s motivation for the bill, but says that it is overly broad. If someone records a doctor saying something newsworthy or admitting to an illegal or unethical activity, and takes that recording to a journalist; AB 1671 would make it a crime for the journalist to put the recording online, said Peele.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Bartnicki v. Vopper that journalists can legally disseminate the contents of an illegally recorded conversation, as long as they did not break the law themselves.

Peele says AB 1671 is unprecedented in the extent to which it undermines the media’s broad protection against prior restraint—government suppression of material that would otherwise be published or broadcast.

“There’s nothing that goes to prior restraint the way that this bill would,” said Peele, who compared the proposed law to Donald Trump’s threats to make it easier for government officials to sue journalists for libel.

“There’s no easy fix here, but the most important aspect is to protect the rights of journalist and not to allow any erosion of our very strong right not to face prior restraint,” said Peele.

The California Catholic Conference has also voiced strong opposition to the bill, calling it an erosion of freedom of speech and an effort to muzzle pro-life activism.

“We think the current law already addresses any loopholes around privacy laws, especially when it comes to illegal videotaping,” said Sandra Palacios, Associate Director for Governmental Relations at the California Catholic Conference.

Palacios said the Conference does not endorse illegal activity, but that illegal recordings can sometimes be the only way to shed light on clandestine or unethical dealings.

“We certainly are not in favor of illegal videotaping, but we think in some cases it merits a closer look at the material that is being provided, and there are some occasions where that is the only way to bring some transparency and clarity on an issue, especially when an issue is not well known by the general public,” she said.

Palacios characterized the proposed legislation as an unfair effort to target the Center for Medical Progress and other pro-life activist groups for their work.

She also expressed concern about the bill’s broad wording, which defines “health care providers” as including volunteers and independent contractors, in addition to doctors and nurses.

Palacios said that with such a wide definition of health care provider, anyone who posts a photo or video online of an interaction with an abortion clinic employee or volunteer could be prosecuted under AB 1671.

“There’s really no telling how far they’re going to go,” said Palacios.