Arresting journalists with demonstrators hurts us all

Monday, October 31, 2011

The First Amendment right of a free press to publish the news absolutely requires that journalists be free to gather the news.

So when police improperly arrest a journalist who simply is reporting at a scene, they do more than violate one person’s rights — they attack our collective, constitutional right to know from a free and independent source what our government is doing so that we may hold it accountable.

The latest incident in which a reporter was arrested while reporting on a public protest took place just days ago, in Nashville, on the steps of Legislative Plaza that fronts the Tennessee Statehouse. About 20 Occupy Nashville protesters were back in the plaza area one night after state troopers had moved in with arrests to enforce a just-passed curfew on such protests in the public square.

On that first evening, night court magistrate Tom Nelson had refused to process those in custody, telling officers there was “no lawful basis to arrest or charge these people.”

One night later, as his own video of the incident shows, Jonathan Meador, a reporter for the weekly newsmagazine the Nashville Scene, was interviewing protesters while using a small “flip” camera as a police warning came over a loudspeaker that “your time is up.” Within seconds, the video shows, as the reporter moves away from the 20-plus line of sitting demonstrators, he is stopped by a trooper — one of a reported 65 officers moving in on the Occupy group.

In the dark and sometimes blurred video, Meador can be heard saying three times quickly that “I’m getting off (the steps),” — to which a voice says, “You’re not … . You’re under arrest.” Amid mild buffeting sounds, Meador says repeatedly, “I’m a member of the media,” to no response.

The state created the new policy about three weeks into the Occupy Nashville protests. It closes the plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and requires that those wishing to use the plaza obtain a $65 permit each day and have $1 million in liability insurance coverage. Previously, a permit was required only when a group wanted exclusive use of the plaza. A lawsuit filed today seeks to prevent further arrests and challenges the new curfew.

The Nashville incident with Meador follows an Oct. 3 announcement of a $100,000 settlement between three journalists improperly arrested in 2008 during the Republican National Convention, and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the U.S. Secret Service. The cities also agreed to develop a training regimen for police on how to avoid violating the First Amendment rights of journalists who are reporting on major events.

Similar police “sweeps” in recent years have gathered up protesters, journalists and the occasional innocent passer-by at events in a variety of cities, ranging from demonstrations at international economic summits to street protests over local issues.

The larger legal questions raised by this latest Nashville protest range from whether there was adequate notice to the “occupiers” of the curfew change, whether the new permit requirements were improperly aimed at silencing just this group of noisy demonstrators, and whether a $1 million insurance requirement imposes such a burden on any group that it chills free speech. And then there are the considerations of whether public safety and sanitary issues raised by authorities were sufficient to justify the arrests and the new limits on plaza use.

Guiding principles in dealing with these issues are that government authorities are permitted to intrude on our First Amendment rights only in very narrow, well-defined circumstances and then only to the minimum degree necessary to achieve the desirable outcome of public safety.

A police policy of “arrest ’em now, sort ’em out later” in dealing with demonstrators — and journalists who report on behalf of the rest of us — falls woefully short of these principles.

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