Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Columns

Arresting journalists is a double negative


Published:

Government surveillance of news media operations ranging from The Associated Press to Fox News has made national headlines for more than month now.

But there's an ongoing government-press conflict that also is important in its effect on journalists' ability to gather and report news, and to the proper role of a free press under the First Amendment: Journalists are being arrested while reporting on public demonstrations or police activity on matters of public interest.

In a latest example, Charlotte Observer religion reporter Tim Funk was arrested June 10 at the General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C., while interviewing local clergy involved in legislative protests.

As seen in a video of the arrest posted on Facebook, Funk, a veteran reporter, was interviewing members of the protest group while wearing a Charlotte Observer identification card on a lanyard around his neck. He continued to do interviews with several protesters after police ordered the group to disperse. He is standing in front of, not among, the group.

Funk first is grabbed by the arm and then handcuffed with a plastic tie.  Later, the reporter was escorted away by three uniform officers. An Observer news story said Funk "was taken along with the arrested protesters to the Wake County magistrate's office to be arraigned on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and failure to disperse."

Gathering news - and performing the Constitutional duty as a "watchdog on government" - requires more than getting a few facts from official sources. It means being at the scene, talking with those involved, observing the news first-hand.

According to a Web site set up to track arrests of journalists in recent years who were reporting on the Occupy movement, in the year ending in September 2012, "more than 90 journalists have been arrested in 12 cities around the United States while covering Occupy protests and civil unrest." Add in a sizable number of arrests in recent years of photographers for taking pictures at the scene of police actions and traffic incidents, and also those swept up in mass arrests of protesters at national and international conferences in the last decade, and there's more reason to worry.

The rights to assemble, peaceably petition the government for change and raise one's voice in doing so are all protected freedoms - along with the right of a free press to gather and report the news without government sanction or disruption.

If police are arresting demonstrators out of legitimate concerns for public safety or for trespassing or such, having an independent news media there to observe and report is a plus. Ignoring that "plus" for whatever reason produces a double negative: Doubt over the unreported motives and actions of officials, as well as the trampling of First Amendment rights.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. Email him at gpolicinski@fac.org

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