During protests, police may balance journalists’ rights with public safety

Without being at the scene of the arrests it is difficult to say if anyone did anything illegal last night when two reporters were detained at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri. The reporters were covering the protests and riots that broke out after an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown was fatally shot by police there.

The tension here lies with allowing the police to do what they need to do to protect public safety and conduct a complete investigation and balancing that with journalists’ right to report.

The police can regulate the time, place and manner of speech to a certain degree as long as it is not a content-based regulation. Meaning, they can clear an area of everyone if they think they need to do that to keep the peace, but they can’t single out a journalist and tell him he cannot be there.

The First Amendment provides safeguards that allow people to gather and disseminate information about government officials. A question to consider in this instance is: Why did the police arrest the reporters? Were the police trying to control the scene or to stop the journalists from doing their jobs?

A journalist has the same rights as the general public to access public property. And, generally, it is legal to record video of people where they would reasonably expect to be seen. However, journalists are not granted special rights to disobey police orders, nor are they allowed to interfere with police work.

Journalists have potential recourse if they believe they are unlawfully arrested. If journalists can prove that they were specifically detained because they were covering news, not just because they were suspected of breaking the law, they can potentially bring a civil claim against a police officer for unlawfully interfering with news gathering.

When journalists are covering demonstrations or public events, they should at all times carry a press credential and government-issued identification (like a driver’s license or a passport) to make it visible that they are members of the media. Also, they should carry money or a credit card to post bond, if necessary.

If a journalist is arrested, he should let the officer know that he is a member of the media and let the supervising officer be notified that a reporter is being detained. The arrested journalist should ask to contact his or her organization’s lawyer.

When reporting in a private property, like a McDonald’s, to minimize risk you should seek consent from the property owner. If you are asked to leave private property, you can explain why you believe you should be able to stay on the property. However, you can be charged with trespassing if you remain on the property and the owner or government officials determine that you do not have a right to be there.

Related: News University Course on Newsgathering Law & Liability: A Guide for Reporting

Related: How journalists can protect themselves & the news they’ve gathered if arrested on the job

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  • http://www.dadtalk.net Brett Levy

    Well, it would be better to have more information just for the sake of understanding the situation. I generally agree that journalists shouldn’t be in the business of making the news, but I disagree that this isn’t news. When your have over-the-top behavior by the police, then how they treat the media, politicians and the general population is the news.

  • DrBlaise

    Brett, there is very little additional information, the reporters are now refusing to answer any additional questions about the incident as they say they want to focus on the protest and the citizens of the town and others who are being arrested. Which is how it should be … they should be reporting, not “making” the news by getting themselves arrested.

  • http://www.dadtalk.net Brett Levy

    I didn’t realize the video was available but just watched one on WP. It doesn’t show the officer doing any slamming; is their another video? But in what I saw, the reporter was doing his job trying to find out why he was being expelled. As far as the journalist identifying himself, one had press ID on and the other did not. Which one was this?

    Did the policeman, who looked more military than police, explain why the reporter had to leave? If McDonald’s asked them to leave, why didn’t the officer say so?

  • DrBlaise

    Again, you really should watch the video. He was not being “careful”, he was purposely moving slowly, possibly walking backwards and trying to keep the officer on his video tape. He did not identify himself as a reporter, but said “I am working”. Are you saying because they were white business men from New York, they should be treated differently than the African Americans that were asked to leave and did leave?

  • Jennifer Michalak

    I can understand why he would be careful. Generally the police work with media. In this case it was already being handled differently. The reporter was being cautious. You already show bias calling the reporter a “spoiled teenager”. I think most people would move carefully if fewer people are in an area and there are already high tensions.

  • DrBlaise

    I am glad you agree that the reporter should have been arrested if he was trespassing and interfering. Perhaps you need to actually watch the video of the reporter. The officer was very clear that the reporter needed to clear out. He was not polite but he was definitely clear. Everyone else was already leaving, so it had to be some time since the initial request. The reporter then acted like a spoiled teenager delaying taking out the trash. “Which way is outside?” “How do I clear out?” “What door do I need to use?” “I am working.” “Can I take my car?” “I am going as fast as I can” He was obviously intentionally delaying and interfering to create news.

  • Jennifer Michalak

    The journalists were clearing out as fast as they could according to both of their statements. They each said the police’s directions were confusing and they were trying to get correct directions when they were arrested. Check your facts before you write a piece.

  • DrBlaise

    The police have a duty to clear private property of trespassers when requested. Believe it or not McDonald’s or any business is private not public property. When the McDonald’s called the police because people were getting to rowdy, it was the police officers duty to clear the store. It was the reporters duty to comply with the officer and leave the store. When the reporter chose to interfere with the officer performing his duty, the reporter broke the law, and could then be arrested.

  • http://www.dadtalk.net Brett Levy

    If you don’t think the police did anything illegal here, then you are essentially endorsing the start of a police state, regardless of the technical aspects of law. As soon as police have the right to arrest anyone without any meaningful cause, and particularly the press, you’ve handed the keys of society over to them.

  • http://www.danablankenhorn.com/ Dana Blankenhorn

    That has to be the worst statement against the First Amendment I have ever read in a journalism publication. If journalists won’t defend their rights to cover a riot from inside a McDonald’s, who will?