BY GENE POLICINSKI
Government surveillance of news media operations ranging from The Associated Press to Fox News has made national headlines for more than month now.
But there’s an ongoing government-press conflict that also is important in its effect on journalists’ ability to gather news and report to the rest of us, and to the proper role of a free press under the First Amendment.
Journalists – reporters and photographers – are being arrested while reporting on public demonstrations or police activity on matters of public interest.
In a latest example, Charlotte Observer religion reporter Tim Funk was arrested June 10 at the General Assembly building in Raleigh, NC, while interviewing local clergy involved in legislative protests.
As seen in a video of the arrest posted on Facebook, Funk, a veteran reporter, was interviewing members of the protest group while wearing a Charlotte Observer identification card on a lanyard around his neck. He continued to do interviews with several protesters after police ordered the group to disperse. He is standing in front of, not among, the group.
Funk first is grabbed by the arm and then handcuffed with a plastic tie. Later, the reporter was escorted away by three uniform officers.
An Observer news story said Funk “was taken along with the arrested protesters to the Wake County magistrate’s office to be arraigned on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and failure to disperse.”
“We believe there was no reason to detain him,” said Cheryl Carpenter, the newspaper’s managing editor said in an Observer story about Funk’s arrest. “He wasn’t there to do anything but report the story, to talk to Charlotte clergy. He was doing his job in a public place.”
Gathering news – and in the process, performing the Constitutional duty as a “watchdog on government” that the nation’s founders envisioned for a free press – requires more getting a few facts from official sources.
It means being at the scene, talking with those involved, observing the news first-hand.
If Funk’s arrest were a single incident, it still would be of concern. But, according to a web site set up to track arrests of journalists in recent years who were reporting on the Occupy movement, in the year ending in September 2012, “more than 90 journalists have been arrested in 12 cities around the United States while covering Occupy protests and civil unrest.”
Add in a sizeable number of arrests in recent years of photographers for taking pictures at the scene of police actions and traffic incidents, and also those swept up in mass arrests of protesters at national and international conferences in the last decade, and there’s more reason to worry.
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association [NPPA], said he deals with such arrest issues involving photojournalists “every day, all across the nation.” He works with police departments to educate officers on the rights of journalists – and the public – to take photos.
He said catch and release police actions have no legal foundation, and that the increase in arrests may stem from a “perfect storm” of more cell phone cameras, and easier distribution and more visibility because of the web.
Certainly, there are times when situations are chaotic and police must act to protect public safety. In such instances, it may be impossible to sort out the protester from the person reporting on the protest. But in Funk’s case, for example, there was no chaos and he visibly – with ID on and notebook in hand – was working as a reporter.
The rights to assemble, peaceably petition the government for change, and to raise one’s voice in doing so, are all protected freedoms under the First Amendment – along with the right of a free press to gather and report the news without government sanction or disruption.
If police are arresting demonstrators for what they say and do out of legitimate concerns for public safety or for trespassing or such, having an independent news media there to accurately observe and report is a plus for officials and for our society.
Ignoring that “plus” for whatever reason produces a double negative: Doubt over the unreported motives and actions of police and other officials, as well as the trampling of First Amendment rights.
– Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center