Chicago police detained journalists covering girl's murder

Andrea Papagianis | Newsgathering | Feature | March 20, 2012

Two journalists were handcuffed and detained by Chicago police outside a hospital over the weekend as they waited to speak with the family of a 6-year-old girl who was murdered.

A video of the incident shows WGN reporter Dan Ponce and NBC Channel 5 photographer Donte Williams being handcuffed and taken into custody after police stated they were "creating a scene," while they -- along with other journalists -- waited on a public sidewalk to interview family members of the girl, a drive-by shooting victim. Police held the two journalists in a police wagon at the scene for 10 minutes before releasing them without any charges.

"Your First Amendment rights can be terminated if you create a scene," the detaining officer is heard telling the journalists in the video. "Your First Amendment rights have limitations."

The U.S. Supreme Court stated, over 70 years ago in Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, that First Amendment rights are at their strongest on public streets and sidewalks, as those locations have forever been used "for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens and discussing public questions."

According to a statement released by the police department, officers acted in order to protect the victim's family after it received allegations from hospital security guards that members of the media attempted to enter private areas of the hospital. But the police department's statement differs from Ponce's account of the events.

"We did what we always do and that is to go to the hospital -- not to barge in the doors of the hospital and demand to speak to family members," Ponce said. "But we wait outside politely to see if family members wish to talk. We were handcuffed and detained because we wouldn’t move from a public sidewalk where we had the right to be."

The police department declined to comment due to an open investigation.

Yesterday, the National Press Photographers Association sent a letter to the department, that stated "it is neither a police officer's duty nor right to decide what is appropriate news coverage of any story. So long as news personnel are in a public forum and not violating any ordinances they have the right to gather news unfettered by the personal feelings or opinions of law enforcement."

Early Saturday evening, a small group of journalists gathered outside Mt. Sinai Hospital where a young shooting victim was taken. At the request of police, the group, including Ponce and Williams, moved from the sidewalk in front of the hospital to a median across the street. But when an officer, described as "overzealous" by Ponce, continued to ask them to move further away from the hospital, the journalists stayed.

Backup officers were called to the scene after the group refused to move. Just before Ponce was taken into custody an unidentified voice is overheard in the video stating, "we are not causing a scene, this is what we do for a living." The video also shows at least seven police officers on hand when the journalists were detained.

"In my five years reporting on crime in Chicago nothing like this has ever happened, I have always been treated with respect by police officers," Ponce said. "At the same time we had a right to be there, we were not antagonizing this officer and I think this one officer was out of line."

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Police press guidelines -- Access to public buildings and schools

· Police, Protesters and the Press