Police press guidelines -- Access to public buildings and schools

Police press guidelines

Law enforcement investigators often restrict media access to crime scenes. Journalists who defy their orders may be charged with interference, disorderly conduct or criminal trespass. If convicted, they risk fines or imprisonment.

Journalists who obey police orders and withdraw from the scene later may file complaints or even lawsuits against the police department, but the opportunities to cover those newsworthy events will have passed.

Some police departments and media organizations have devised written guidelines outlining rules for media access to crime scenes and procedures for issuing press passes for access to nonpublic areas or emergency scenes.

Police departments with established press-pass systems are not allowed to decide arbitrarily who will receive passes and who will not. If a department denies a press pass, it must give the reporter reasons for the denial and a chance to appeal.7

In recent years, some reporters have been swept up in mass arrests during protests. Other reporters and photographers have been injured or fined while covering protests. Journalists often are surprised to learn that they don’t have a First Amendment right to wander wherever they please at a demonstration. What a reporter considers aggressive reporting is often an officer’s idea of disorderly conduct. Photojournalists are particularly susceptible to arrest. In the past when a journalist was arrested at a news scene, quick-thinking editors and media lawyers often were able to get the charges dismissed. Police, prosecutors and judges were willing to recognize they were only doing their jobs. That is not as likely to happen in today’s criminal justice climate.

Here are some common sense tips that the Reporters Committee has gathered over the years from media and criminal defense lawyers that may help prevent an arrest, or at least get you out of jail faster.

• Carry your credentials with you at all times. Don’t trespass onto property that is clearly private or marked with a police line.

• Don’t take anything from the crime scene — you’ll be charged with theft.

• If a police officer orders you to do something, even if it seems unreasonable or ridiculous or interferes with your job, do it — unless you’re willing to live with the consequences of being arrested.

• Don’t call the arresting officer names or get into a shouting or shoving match.

• If you’re covering a demonstration or other event likely to result in arrests, keep $50-$100 cash in your pocket to purchase a bail bond.

• If you’re able, give your notes or film to another journalist who can get them back to your newsroom promptly.

• Always keep a government-issued photo ID (in addition to a press pass) in your pocket. It may speed up your release from custody.

• Editors and news directors who routinely send reporters and photographers to cover stories likely to result in arrests should have phone numbers of criminal lawyers and bail bondsmen in major cities. Also, know the name and phone number of the police department spokesperson, who may be able to help.


Access to public buildings and schools

Journalists also may have problems gaining access to cover events in public buildings, including public auditoriums and sports arenas that have been leased for nongovernmental functions. When municipally owned property is operated in a commercial rather than governmental capacity, the media have no special right of access beyond that afforded to the general public.

For example, when the city of Hartford, Conn., rented its civic center to the promoter of a figure skating championship, a U.S. District Court rejected a television station’s claim that its First Amendment right to gather news was infringed because the promoter gave ABC television the exclusive right to cover the competition.8

However, a federal judge in Cleveland ruled that a state Democratic organization holding a convention in the city’s civic center could not discriminate among journalists by admitting some and not others. The judge said that a private body leasing a government facility had the same constitutional obligations as the government.9

Standards governing access to public school buildings differ by state. Generally, public school property is treated as nonpublic forum public property, and regulations that restrict access but are designed to minimize interference with normal school activities would be constitutionally permissible.

No state laws bar the media from school grounds outright, but individual school districts may have adopted regulations limiting access to school property. Occasionally, reporters covering events on school property have been arrested for trespassing. Some districts have adopted more liberal policies that allow reporters access as long as they do not disrupt educational activities. In June 1996, the California Attorney General’s office issued an advisory opinion giving school administrators the authority to deny media access to school grounds if their presence “would interfere with peaceful conduct of the activities of the school.”10


7. Sherrill v. Knight, 596 F.2d 124, 129 (D.C. Cir. 1977).

8. Post-Newsweek Stations Inc. v. Traveler’s Insurance Co., 518 F.Supp. 81 (D.Conn. 1981); see also D’Amario v. Providence Civic Center Authority, 783 F.2d 1 (1st Cir.) (rev’d and remanded), 639 F.Supp. 1538 (D.R.I. 1986) (complaint dismissed).

9. National Broadcasting Co. v. Association of State Democratic Chairs, 14 Med.L.Rep. 1383 (N.D. Ohio 1987).

10. Cal. A.G. Op. No. 95-509 (1996).