by Gregg Leslie, Legal Defense Director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
The unrest in Ferguson, Mo., concerns civil rights issues of the most fundamental nature. And the concerns of journalists who get arrested covering that unrest seem to pale in comparison to the issues underlying the protests. But when we see things like this week’s decision to bring charges against journalists who were arrested last year, it’s important to remember that the right to cover these controversies is as important to the public as the right to protest in the first place. Without news accounts – be they by established “mainstream” media or independent bloggers – the controversy could not be fully understood by those who want to know what happened and what needs to change.
The decision to prosecute – which apparently affects nearly everyone arrested last summer, not just the journalists whose cases have been publicized this week – seems odd, and tied more to the looming statute of limitations deadline than the renewed protests there. It also seems that prosecutors may be pursuing this only because the county still fears that those arrested for exercising their rights will bring civil rights suits; an offer to drop criminal charges can make those suits settle quickly.
Each arrest has a unique set of facts, but many of the journalists arrested last year were simply gathering news. The two reporters whose arrests got much of the attention, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, weren’t even involved in a contentious encounter. They were instead sitting in a McDonald’s, recharging their phones. The reporters were ordered to leave a public restaurant, and while they were leaving, they asked questions and videotaped the officers. This is perfectly lawful and appropriate behavior; they weren’t refusing to leave, just daring to ask questions while they were being forced out of a public place. Their newsgathering does not justify the officers’ decision to arrest them for “disobeying” an order, and certainly cannot justify a trespassing charge in a restaurant open to the public.