Pressure Builds in Response to Journalist Arrests

On Monday afternoon Joe Pompeo of Capital New York broke the news that 13 New York City news organizations and 10 press-freedom groups from across the country had sent a letter to city officials in response to recent journalist arrests. The same day, the New York Press Club announced a new coalition was forming to monitor the NYPD’s treatment of the press.

I have been tracking and documenting these journalist arrests since September and a week ago my organization Free Press launched a citizen petition calling for all charges to be dropped and demanding that Mayor Michael Bloomberg commit to protecting the First Amendment.

Pompeo quotes part of yesterday’s letter, which points out that these arrests represent ongoing challenges with police-press relations:

“The signatories below wish to express their profound displeasure, disappointment and concern over the recent actions taken against the media. … Over the past few months we have tried to work with [the Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information] to improve police-press relations. However, if anything, the police actions of the last week have been more hostile to the press than any other event in recent memory.”

Indeed, as we reported last Friday, there is a troubling trend in the erosion of press freedoms. These arrests are only the most recent and perhaps most shocking incidents in a long series of incursions on the First Amendment.

Brian Stelter of the New York Times reported that the letter highlights “numerous inappropriate, if not unconstitutional, actions and abuses” by the police against both “credentialed and noncredentialed journalists.”

The letter also reveals that press met with NY officials in August. At that time Bloomberg administration officials had committed to “train new officers in observing guidelines for the treatment of the media.” However, the letter notes this training never occurred. A similar training effort was part of the settlement between St. Paul, Minn. police and journalists arrested in 2008 at the Republican National Convention.

It’s vital that news organizations, unions, professional associations and press-freedom organizations speak out when these freedoms are attacked and work together to hold our leaders accountable.  But the public has a responsibility here too. For too long, many have taken the First Amendment for granted, as something so fundamental to our American identity that it hardly warranted attention. The recent arrests and press suppression have been a catalyst, sparking renewed interest about the state of the First Amendment.

We should welcome this debate. In an article about the arrests, the New York Observer notes that “history shows the government cannot delegate fundamental rights like the First Amendment to law enforcement.” The public must ensure our government truly and consistently defends freedom of the press.

It has now been one week since last Tuesday’s arrests of 10 journalists in New York. Since then, tens of thousands of people have signed our citizen petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. We’ll be delivering those petition signatures on behalf of people across the country, amplifying the demands from newsrooms and other press-advocacy groups that are now weighing in.


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