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Tips for covering protests

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From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

From the Spring 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

Journalists often are surprised to learn that they don’t have a First Amendment right to wander wherever they please at a crime scene or demonstration. What a reporter considers aggressive reporting is often a cop’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 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.

• Call the Reporters Committee ‘s 24-hour hotline, (800) 336-4243. We may be able to help.