Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press, but can cops eliminate that liberty all together? Journalists in America are quickly learning that their own presence is pushing the police to threaten their First Amendment rights.
No, cops in the US cannot actually strip reporters and cameramen of their right to report freely in public space, but more and more often lately journalists in America are learning that the officers in charge of enforcing laws have a very limited understanding of what they have sworn to uphold. While on assignment recently in Chicago, two credentialed members of the media were hauled away in cuffs.
"Your First Amendment rights can be terminated," was the warning issued by a Chicago Police Department officer that was caught on video this March. Two staffers with a local NBC News affiliate were apprehended while on the scene outside of an area hospital to report on the death of a young girl when cops patrolling the premises insisted that journalists walk away from the building; members of the press had already been forced to retreat across the street from the facility when the altercation took place.
When members of the media challenged the officer’s threat, they were told, "Your presence is creating a scene." After arrested two reporters with NBC News, the Chicago PD released them without filing charges and issued a statement explaining their actions:
“We removed two individuals from the hospital at the request of hospital security guards, who asserted that the individuals had tried to go past them into secure and private areas of the hospital. The security guards declined to press charges and the individuals were released,” reads the statement.
The press release continues but nowhere does it address the behavior of the officers who were videotaped threatening to revoke constitutional rights from the fourth estate. Addressing the ongoing trend of journalists being pushed around by the police, MSNBC blogger Bob Sullivan writes on Friday that it’s only to be expected. Commenting on the video that shows reporters removed from the scene in handcuffs, Suillivan says, “The video is chilling, but it's also a sign of the times.”
Because the clip was captured on camera, says Sullivan, “Chicago cops suffered an embarrassing ‘caught on tape’ moment, and civil rights experts who say cops are unfairly cracking down on citizens with cameras had their iconic moment.” Iconic, perhaps, but it’s nowhere near isolated.
Independent journalists and civilians have especially spoken out in recent months about having the first amendment rights eroded by law enforcement, particularly during the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in September. From New York, NY to Oakland, California, cops being caught on camera were reported to time and time again tell journalists that they couldn’t capture them on film. Only in the Chicago incident, though, does one officer of the law suggest that exercising the First Amendment is a reason to revoke it.
In an open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder last month, advocates for constitutional rights insist that federal authorities examine the violations occurring across the country.
“Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, police have arrested dozens of journalists and activists simply for attempting to document political protests in public spaces. While individual cases may not fall under the Justice Department’s jurisdiction, the undersigned groups see this suppression of speech as a national problem that deserves your full attention,” reads the letter.
“The alarming number of arrests is an unfortunate and unwarranted byproduct of otherwise positive changes. A new type of activism is taking hold around the world and here in the US.: People with smartphones, cameras and Internet connections have been empowered with the means to report on public events. These developments have also created an urgent need for organizations such as ours to defend this new breed of activists and journalists and protect their right to record.”
Critics have locally attacked lawmakers for limiting press freedom as of late, especially in New York City where Mayor Bloomberg has condoned the NYPD over their overzealous force in recent months and has stood by their actions against reporters.
“The press made a big deal that they were denied their rights,” the mayor said in December during a weekly segment with WOR Radio. “You don’t have a right as a press person, I don’t think, to stand in the way just in the interest of you getting a story.” In November. New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly added that reporters “didn't have a right to be there” doing coverage “because there was confusion as to what they were allowed to do.”
Signers of the letter to Holder, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others, ask the attorney general that “authorities at the local, state and federal level to stop their assault on people attempting to document protests and other events unfolding in public spaces.” Their plea was offered only days before the recent NATO Summit in Chicago, where, prior to this year, making an audio recording of an on-duty police officer was against the law.