Skip to content

For reporters confronted by police, some common sense tips

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 2. Every four years, the Reporters Committee…

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 2.

Every four years, the Reporters Committee engages in a ritual that harkens back to the days when 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, and the accompanying assaults and arrests of journalists, were fresh in every reporter's mind.

It's time to set up the convention hotlines.

Since 1972, the Reporters Committee has provided reporters covering the national political conventions with cost-free legal advice and representation. In recent years, the possibility that a reporter would be arrested covering a political convention has been remote, and the hotlines got little use.

Not today. Where there's a story, you'll find the storytellers. And, unfortunately, journalists sometimes get swept into the chaos that accompanies protests and demonstrations. As our cover story demonstrates, police and prosecutors are arresting and charging journalists for doing their jobs at rates not seen in decades.

The Chicago anti-war protesters of 1968 have evolved into the eclectic mix of anarchists and animal rights, environmentalist and anti-capitalism advocates who have created chaos and news in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and even Minneapolis.

As I write this, our Republican convention hotline in Philadelphia, led by Samuel Klein and his team at the Dechert law firm, is ready to take calls. Our volunteer lawyers in Los Angeles at Davis Wright Tremaine will operate the phones during the Democratic National Convention. We are grateful to these lawyers for donating their time to this project.

In recent months, we have expanded our convention hotline. We arranged for cost-free legal assistance in Washington, D.C., in April when it became known that protesters planned demonstrations for the World Bank spring meetings. We undoubtedly will set up another hotline for the next round of World Bank/ WTO meetings here in Washington, D.C.

Journalists are often 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 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 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. (They can also inform your boss that you've been arrested.)
  • 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 handy of criminal lawyers and bail bondsmen in major cities. It's also a good idea to know the name and phone number of the police department spokesperson, who may be able to help.
  • Call the Reporters Committee 24-hour hotline, (800) 336-4243. We may be able to help. In recent months, we have set up media assistance hot-lines at the political conventions and other protests. We are likely to continue this practice if the current protest "climate" continues.