Balkinization  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Assault on Journalism in Ferguson, Missouri

Frank Pasquale

The city of Ferguson, Missouri now looks like a war zone. Rapidly escalating responses to protest by a militarized police force have created dangerous conditions. About the only defense people have is some public attention to their plight. And now even that is being shut down by a series of intimidation tactics. Consider the following:

1) As the Washington Post states, its "reporter Wesley Lowery was detained by police on Wednesday while reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police over the weekend." Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly had his head slammed against glass as he attempted to report on police action.

2) U.S. Courts of Appeals have affirmed the right to record the police. The Justice Department has offered clear, recent guidance on the topic.

3) As the Post's Executive Editor has observed, the information blackout has been so pervasive that we are not even allowed to know who is executing it:


[Lowery was] illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers. Then he followed officers' instructions to leave a McDonald's — and after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed. That behavior was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news. The physical risk to Wesley himself is obvious and outrageous. After being placed in a holding cell, he was released with no charges and no explanation. He was denied information about the names and badge numbers of those who arrested him.
This is consistent with other anti-transparency measures in the dispute.

4) Police brutality has been a pervasive problem. We can only start a public conversation on the magnitude of the problem if people have the unfettered right to record law enforcement practices.

5) Many people have reported that police in Ferguson told them to turn off cameras and recording devices. Police refused to answer basic questions. Even major media organizations were told to leave.

6) Police tear-gassed journalists from Al Jazeera and local TV crews.

7) Local leaders are not safe, either. Both an alderman and a state senator were detained and tear-gassed.

The United States has not exactly distinguished itself in its treatment of journalists. In 2012, it fell to 47th in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, well behind countries like Surinam, Mali, and Slovakia, largely due to police harassment of photographers and videographers at Occupy Wall Street protests. How far should it fall if police can basically decide unilaterally to make entire cities "no First Amendment zones"? How can the US warn other countries not to "take military action against protesters," if it allows an out-of-control force like Ferguson's to plot a media blackout? This is a policy of order-at-all-costs, even if it means "law enforcers" breaking the law with impunity.

I will have more to say later on the underlying dispute (well covered by Mary Ann Franks and Jamelle Bouie). For now, all I can say is: we should be deeply worried about the broader campaign to create "urban battlespaces" in American cities. This is a dangerous amalgamation of police and military functions, thoughtlessly accelerated by the distribution of war-fighting equipment to local law enforcers around the country. Minimal standards of accountability require free access by the press.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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