Police, Protesters and the Press

February 1, 2012

How a wave of protests across the nation has tested police-press relations, and what it means for journalists who cover them.

“I’m with the press! I’m with the press!” a reporter yelled out as he was getting arrested. “I’ve got a press pass!”

The conventional wisdom was that yelling that identifying phrase above the din of a rallying crowd or amidst the confusion of police action could help a journalist avoid arrest.

But now, as documented in a series of videos that have surfaced across the Internet since the Occupy Wall Street protests have swept the nation, such shouts are likely to land journalists in handcuffs. Matthew Hamill, a host at Radio Free Nashville, yelled “I’m with the press” on Dec. 3 while covering Occupy Nashville. The officer replied “I don’t care who you are,” as he slapped on the handcuffs.

These days, credentials dangling around a reporter’s neck intended to provide special access to places are no guarantee that police will not lump the reporter in with protestors on charges, some of which are later dropped, such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or failure to comply with police orders.

If a reporter is lucky enough to avoid arrest, press passes, which once afforded journalist more access than the general public to incident scenes, are sometimes used to identify the folks who are corralled in press pens out of shot of the stories developing on the streets.

And, perhaps most telling, fewer reporters are shouting “I’m press!” for fear that it will make them clear targets for getting ordered back, harassed, roughed up or even arrested by authorities who would rather not have the press closely documenting their activities.

To be sure, these allegations of deteriorating police-press relations surrounding the coverage of the Occupy movement and similar incidents involving law enforcement officers do not necessarily represent a trend that has spread to police departments across the nation. In fact, many have maintained good ties with members of the media, and others have been responsive to concerns voiced by the press.

But with the dozens of reporters—members of the mainstream media, students, freelancers, bloggers and even cartoonists—that have been arrested or harassed in the months of covering the Occupy protests, the coverage has reignited an important debate about police-press relations. And at a time when it seems the protestor will continue to command the attention of the media with the sustained Occupy movement and what will likely be the most volatile national political conventions of the decade this summer, journalists are beginning to ask what kind of stage is being set as they continue to cover the chaos.

And if communications should break down and a journalist gets arrested, he or she needs to know what to do during and after that arrest. That includes knowing what to do to make sure any future civil rights suit can be successful.

This guide is meant as an introduction for journalists to the general law that governs claims that the government somehow violated an individual’s civil rights and discusses the factual scenarios that often determine the results. It does not replace the legal advice from an attorney in one’s own state when confronted with a specific legal problem. Journalists who have additional questions or who need to find a lawyer with experience litigating these types of claims can contact the Reporters Committee at (800) 336-4243.

Funding for this publication was provided by The McCormick Foundation.