Enough is enough: End the arrests of journalists documenting police activity in public places

Jonathan Peters

An AP reporter, an AP photographer, a Daily Newsreporter, a Vanity Fair correspondent, a New York Timesblogger—all arrested or detained while covering Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests.

And that’s just a sample.

Josh Stearns, associate program director at Free Press, for two months has tracked journalist arrests at OWS protests, and as of this writing the total is 26.  That’s 26 people arrested in public places for newsgathering (or as the police call it: trespassing, obstruction, etc.). 

In New York, where the police arrested 10 journalists on November 15, in and around Zuccotti Park, Mayor Bloomberg said the officers just wanted to protect the press.


I don’t envy Bloomberg—or any other mayor—who has the difficult job of protecting public parks and at the same time preserving the right peaceably to assemble.  But this, arresting journalists, is part of a larger problem, a pattern of harassing people for documenting police activity in public view.

In June, a police officer in Rochester arrested a woman who videotaped—from her own front yard—a simple traffic stop.  She was charged with obstruction of governmental administration.  Prosecutors dropped the charge days later.

In March, a police officer in Las Vegas arrested a man who videotaped—from his own driveway—a burglary call at his neighbor’s house.  After the officer punched and kicked the man, the man was charged with battery and obstruction of justice.  Prosecutors dropped the charges days later.

In January, police officers in Boston arrested a lawyer who videotaped—from a public sidewalk—the officers’ struggle to “extract a plastic bag from a teenager’s mouth.”  The lawyer was charged with illegal electronic surveillance.  Prosecutors refused to drop the charge.

For those and the OWS arrests, the charges vary quite a bit, from trespassing to obstruction to illegal surveillance.  But the underlying problem is a constant, and it doesn’t matter that the charges often disappear. The message has been sent: Videotape and photograph at your peril.

As I wrote last summer in a related column for the IRE Journal, with Charles Davis, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, it’s time to push back.

Enough with the arrests of American citizens videotaping police activity in public view, on public streets, in front of God and country. … These abuses are happening despite a long tradition in American law of protecting photography and videography in public places. … Police officers have tough jobs. We commiserate with the life-and-death struggles they all too often face, for low pay and few (if any) perks.  It’s a calling, police work …. But the trend toward enshrining in our laws the secret police tactics that Americans have long condemned—it’s shameful.  This is the stuff of banana republics. 

I’d write the same thing today about OWS.  After all, I’m not supposed to read in the United States about the police arresting dozens of journalists, the police roughing journalists up, the police restricting journalists to out-of-sight-out-of-mind pens.

Enough is enough.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he’s working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. He’s written on legal issues for a variety of news media, most recently PBS and Wired. Follow him @jonathanwpeters on Twitter.  

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