RNC-ya. Whew. Now What About The Journalists?

September 6, 2008

The Republican National Convention delegates have left St. Paul, except for those who live around here.  The so-called “anarchists” are gone, too, except for those who live in Minnesota either permanently (in parental basements?) or temporarily (in the Ramsey County Jail).  What a shame that a handful of rabblerousers felt need to step outside the cloak of the First Amendment to damage property while engaging in otherwise legal, valid, and need-to-be-heard concerns about our country and about the party currently controlling the White House.

Troublingly, journalists — some from the mainstream media, some not — were arrested along with the vandals.  The arrests came while the journalists were engaging in their First Amendment rights to gather news.  I wore a suit to work yesterday in case I had to go to court to try to get a reporter for The Uptake sprung from policy custody.  Luckily, she was released around 2:30 yesterday morning, and I never had to don a tie on a Friday.

Now what?  Who gets prosecuted for criminal activity, and who does not?  As Police Chief John Harrington was quoted in this morning’s Pioneer Press, “the media isn’t exempt from (a) legal order.”  True.  According to the paper, Harrington has indicated that now a “policy decision” (the newspaper’s words, not Harrington’s)  must be made to determine what to do with the journalists who “were simply caught up in the middle.”

A policy decision.  Oh boy.   Once again, we are on the verge of government endeavoring to determine who is and who is not a journalist.  This should frighten anyone who cherishes free speech.  The framers of the First Amendment would shudder at the words “media credentials.”  Online communicators in particular, beware.

This is a topic I have written on several times before, most often in the context of “shield laws” that generally protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources.  My views put me at odds with many of my journalist friends, but here is how I see it:

Anytime government is authorized to determine who is or is not a journalist, government essentially engages in a licensing scheme by awarding increased First Amendment rights and protections to a select group of media interests, which, generally, garner substantial revenue from corporate advertising.  Licensing schemes have their roots in England, where the king used to decide who could and could not print newspapers.  The schemes were among the travesties that so many of our ancestors were eager to escape, and are a big reason why we have the First Amendment in the first place.

In light of that history, St. Paul police and prosecutors need to tread with caution in coming days.  Charges should be dropped not because someone was a journalist, but because authorities lack clear probable cause that any journalist committed a crime related either to damaging property or inciting (as opposed to documenting) a potential riot.  Pushing Dumpters into police cars is a crime.  Recording the worst civil unrest in St. Paul history is not.  Simple as that.

Citizen journalist, or not?  Hmm ... (Photo by Steven P. Aggergaard)

Citizen journalist, or not? Hmm ... (Photo by Steven P. Aggergaard)


One Response to “RNC-ya. Whew. Now What About The Journalists?”

  1. […] web of arrests outside the Republican National Convention.  That’s the right call.  But, as I predicted, the call was made for the wrong reasons.  As I wrote a couple weeks […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: