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2020 Political Conventions Resources and Tips

This is a photo of red, white, and blue balloons at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. There is a photojournalist in the middle holding up a camera.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will provide special coverage of its legal hotline, as it has in every election cycle since 1972, for journalists reporting on the 2020 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

Both conventions may be largely remote this year. The Democratic National Committee has continued to scale back its convention in Milwaukee, announcing that all of the scheduled speakers, including former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, and his running mate, will address the convention remotely and will no longer travel to Milwaukee.

Plans for the RNC are less clear. President Donald Trump has announced that he may deliver his speech from the White House rather than from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the convention was originally scheduled to occur. President Trump has also scrapped plans to hold a portion of events in Jacksonville, Florida, after the number of coronavirus cases in that state spiked. The convention in Charlotte will be dramatically scaled-down and may even exclude the press, according to Republican officials.


Hotline

Journalists who have questions or encounter issues while reporting in Milwaukee, Charlotte or elsewhere can contact the hotline at 1-800-336-4243 or by using our online form, to reach Reporters Committee attorneys in Washington, D.C., as well as local attorneys who have generously agreed to provide assistance in Milwaukee (Brian C. Spahn at Godfrey & Kahn S.C. and Jason D. Luczak at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP) and Charlotte (Jonathan Buchan at Essex Richards).

We will also be coordinating hotline coverage with Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. It is a good idea to write the hotline number in indelible ink on your arm, so you do not have to worry about losing or remembering the number if you are arrested and your cellphone is taken from you.


Convention Tips

BE PREPARED

Protests occurring at political conventions in the past sometimes have resulted in mass arrests during which reporters and photographers have been taken into custody. Familiarize yourself with the Reporters Committee’s tip sheet for covering protests in advance. It contains practical tips for journalists to protect themselves before and during protests. You can print out this version to take with you. You can also learn about your rights while covering protests, including your First Amendment right to record police officers publicly performing their duties, subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, in the Reporters Committee’s Police, Protesters, and the Press guide.

Always carry two forms of identification: (1) your convention credential and any police-issued press pass or other documentation of your status as a professional journalist, and (2) a government-issued photo identification card like a driver’s license.

It is generally helpful to make it visually obvious you are a member of the press by prominently displaying your press pass. This could help you avoid arrest if an officer would otherwise assume that you are a protester. If an event becomes the subject of law enforcement activity, the best way to avoid being arrested is to report on those activities in a manner that does not obstruct law enforcement activity, and to follow all police orders. Do not walk through a police line without first showing your press pass and obtaining permission. If police issue a general dispersal order, you may be arrested if you do not comply. Journalists can strategically retreat and then seek better access from a supervising officer.

It is also important to be mindful of the federal trespass law, 18 U.S.C. § 1752, which makes it a crime to “knowingly” enter a restricted area under Secret Service control, to engage in “disorderly or disruptive conduct,” to intentionally obstruct or impede access to any restricted building or grounds, or to knowingly engage in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds. The law also creates a “floating bubble” of protection around the president and other dignitaries. Read more about the federal trespass law here.

POLICE INFORMATION

The Secret Service, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, local police departments, and many other law enforcement agencies may have a presence in and around convention-related locations. In the event of any incident between the media and police, you should immediately call the Reporters Committee hotline at 1-800-336-4243.

DETENTION

If you are covering the activities of a crowd that invites arrest and want to avoid being arrested along with them, move to the periphery of the activity so you can readily detach yourself should that prove necessary. In the event police detain you, remain calm and comply with police orders.

In addition:

  1. Ask if the officer can give you a citation rather than take you into custody (police officers in many cities now have this authority to reduce the spread of coronavirus);
  2. Ask why you are being detained;
  3. Notify the arresting officer that you are a news reporter and show your credentials;
  4. Ask to notify a supervisor or captain that a reporter is being detained and request expedited booking; and
  5. Seek permission to call an outside contact who has the phone number of your attorney or the Reporters Committee hotline.
ARREST & RELEASE

If you are arrested for a low-level misdemeanor, as is usually the case for journalists, the quickest way to get back onto the streets to continue reporting is to politely let the booking personnel know you are a reporter, cooperate and, assuming bail is necessary, post bail.

As part of the booking procedure, you may undergo a medical screening. You will also be fingerprinted, your photograph will be taken, and your identity will be verified. You should cooperate in giving your name, address and other basic identifying information but remember that other statements you make can and will be used against you in later proceedings. Note that if you do not have proof of your identity or refuse to provide it, you will be detained until your identity is determined.

Milwaukee:

RCFP and NPPA attorneys are working with local attorneys in Milwaukee to encourage the Milwaukee Police Department to issue citations to journalists committing non-felony infractions, rather than taking them into custody.

In the event you are arrested, you will likely be brought to the District 1 Police Station, 749 W. State Street, for holding, then transferred to a county jail for processing. Bail for certain misdemeanors may be set according to a schedule and may not require a hearing. If a hearing is required, it will most likely be conducted via Zoom.

Although we are working with local attorneys and the Milwaukee Police Department to expedite the process to the greatest extent possible, you may be detained for 12 or more hours before bail is set.

Bail may be paid 24/7 by cash or credit card. You have three options for paying bail in Milwaukee: (1) in person at the kiosks located on the ground floor (Level G) of the Criminal Justice Facility, 949 N. 9th Street; (2) online at touchpayonline.com; or (3) by phone at 1-866-232-1899. If paying online or by phone, reference Location Code Milwaukee County Jail and Site ID#253233. If you need assistance paying bail online or by phone, contact TouchPay customer service at 1-866- 204-1603.

Charlotte:

RCFP and NPPA attorneys are working with law enforcement in Charlotte to encourage police officers to issue citations to journalists arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors rather than taking them into custody.

If you are arrested, you will likely be taken to the Arrest Processing Center at 801 E. Fourth Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. Fortunately, judges in Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, have been moving away from a cash bail system, releasing those arrested for low-level misdemeanors – what journalists are typically arrested for – without requiring them to post bail.

Click here for information about court dates, including building location, courtrooms, and time. If you need assistance finding a criminal defense attorney to represent you, contact the hotline.

PROHIBITED ITEMS
Milwaukee:

The City of Milwaukee has issued an ordinance prohibiting the possession of certain items within a secured area around the convention. The City has not yet issued a map of the secured area, but we will update this page as we receive additional information. Some of the prohibited items include:

  • backpacks or bags exceeding 18” x 13” x 7”;
  • any gas mask or similar device designed to filter air breathed by the wearer in an attempt to protect the respiratory tract or face against irritating or noxious gasses or other materials (excluding cloth masks used as personal protection equipment to avoid transmission of viral infection);
  • any rope, chain, cable, strapping, wire, string, line, tape or similar material, in a length greater than 6 inches;
  • any glass bottle, ornament, light bulb, ceramic vessel or other brittle container, regardless of whether the container holds any substance;
  • any lock, including, without limitation, any padlock, bicycle locking device, chain lock or similar device;
  • switchblades or automatic knives;
  • drones;
  • aerosol cans;
  • mace or pepper spray; and
  • umbrellas with metal tips.

Please see the ordinance for a complete list of prohibited items.

Charlotte:

When Charlotte hosted the DNC in 2012, it enacted an “extraordinary event ordinance” restricting certain items, such as backpacks and gas masks. Charlotte’s City Council subsequently repealed that ordinance and now, due to the spread of coronavirus, requires people to wear masks in government-owned buildings and in public places where social distancing cannot be maintained. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has also issued an executive order requiring face masks to be worn in public, and new guidelines are expected August 7.


Additional Resources from the Reporters Committee:

The resources linked below provide helpful information on covering conventions, protests, and other demonstrations.

The Reporters Committee’s tip sheet has practical tips for journalists to protect themselves before and during protests.

The Reporters Committee’s Police, Protesters and the Press guide covers journalists’ rights at protests to gather news generally, record (video or audio footage, photographs, etc.), and to protect equipment and materials from unnecessary search and seizure.

The National Press Photographers Associations’ Some Practical Advice About Covering High Conflict News Stories provides a summary of legal issues to consider when covering conventions and protests along with practical tips and advice.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Physical Safety: Civil Disorder provides physical safety tips for journalists covering protests and demonstrations.

First Amendment Watch’s A Citizen’s Guide to Recording the Police details the legal rights of citizens and journalists to record police officers and government officials while in the public performance of their duties.

AP Photo by David J. Phillip