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Occupying the First Amendment

220 years after the Bill of Rights, how we’re still fighting for free speech.

occupy reporter by ryan

The definition of who's "press" is getting difficult to define with new technologies and many unaffiliated freelance journalists.

Photo by Ryan

Today, we celebrate the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. However, this celebration is overshadowed by three months of journalist arrests and press suppression across the U.S.

Since the middle of September more than 30 journalists have been arrested while trying to cover Occupy Wall Street protests in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Boston to Oakland. Hundreds of others journalists have complained about press suppression and harassment, including everything from physical abuse to the use of strobe lights to blind cameras.

This is a reminder that it is not enough to celebrate our freedoms. We must also defend them. In response to the widespread reports of altercations between press and police and the documented efforts by mayors in New York City and Los Angeles to strictly limit press access during raids on Occupy encampments, journalism organizations like Free Press, the Society for Professional Journalists, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Press Photographers Association have been working to defend journalists. In New York City, thirteen major news organizations came together to demand an immediate meeting with the NYPD to address their concerns.

Demographics of journalism are changing; we have more freelancers and independent journalists covering critical events and issues.

Their meeting resulted in a formal directive from NYPD police commissioner Raymond Kelly, ordering police officers not to interfere with press. However, just weeks after that order the NYPD has arrested more journalists and has continued to block and intimidate reporters.

Perhaps most troubling is that these arrests are not isolated incidents, but part of a growing trend of police cracking down on first amendment freedoms, especially as related to new technology. “Unfortunately these incidents are occurring with increased frequency throughout the country,” notes Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

Indeed, recent years have seen a flurry of high profile court cases related to police obstruction of journalists’ and citizens’ First Amendment rights. However, thankfully, the courts have, for the most part, applied a broad interpretation of the First Amendment and its application to all people. In one case decided earlier this year, Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone to record police actions in Boston Common. Glik sued three Boston police officers for infringing on his First Amendment rights and Judge Kermit Lipez ruled in his favor, stating:

[C]hanges in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw… Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.

This is important not only because of changes in technology, but also changes in journalism. Since 2008 tens of thousands of journalism jobs have been lost, primarily from mainstream media outlets. This loss comes atop a decade of cuts to newsrooms, foreign bureaus and investigative journalism efforts. However, in recent years we have also seen a proliferation of new journalism efforts, most of them small, online and with deep roots in local communities. These developments mean the demographics of journalism are changing; we have more freelancers and independent journalists covering critical events and issues.

In their just-released 2011 census of journalist arrests worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that “the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide shot up more than 20 percent to its highest level since the mid-1990s.” Of the 179 journalists imprisoned worldwide, 86 were digital journalists whose work appeared primarily online and 78 were freelancers. That trend is also reflected in the make-up of the journalists who have been arrested at Occupy protests. While some have been affiliated with news organizations like NPR or the New York Times, many have been working independently.

As Rebecca Rosen notes in The Atlantic, “Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections — not because of laws that protect them but because of the legal power their companies can buy. For everyone else, we should hope that we haven’t legislated non-journalists out of the protections the First Amendment seeks.”

At a time when there are so many important stories to be told, the best way to defend the First Amendment is to use it.

Recent events have shown, however, that it is not enough to simply hope for a good outcome. We need to work together to defend the First Amendment locally in our communities and across the nation. The response to these arrests have been heartening as people have leapt to action to support journalists who have been arrested. They are showing up on the courtroom steps, raising awareness about the arrests, and raising money for legal defense.

In addition to the legal fights outlined above, people are also fighting for better policies that will foster more – not less – quality news. So far 40,000 people have signed Free Press’s petition to mayors, calling on them to protect the First Amendment in their cities and drop all charges against arrested journalists.

However, perhaps the most hopeful response I have seen as I’ve been monitoring these arrests has been the actions of journalists themselves. In case after case, hours after being released from prison journalists are back on the streets, reporting again. At a time when there are so many important stories to be told, the best way to defend the First Amendment is to use it.


Josh Stearns wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Josh is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press.

On Twitter: @jcstearns

 

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