By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The Ferguson, Missouri police seem hell-bent to try to prove they were right when they arrested, detained, abused and harassed scores of journalists during protests in the city last year.
On Aug. 6, three days and one year after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer, authorities in St. Louis County filed charges against two journalists who had been arrested during the infamous protests that followed the shooting. The charges were brought two days before the statute of limitations ran out.
The journalists, Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, and Ryan J. Reilly, a reporter for The Huffington Post, were charged with trespassing and interfering with a police officer. They were ordered to appear in a St. Louis County municipal court on Aug. 24 or face arrest. The counts carry a possible fine of $1,000 and up to a year in a county jail.
Obviously, the legal mind that told authorities that they have Constitutional grounds for filing the charges has misread, misinterpreted and misrepresented the spirit and intent of the First Amendment right to a free press. Or maybe they just don’t care.
Any journalist worth their press credentials knows it’s unlawful to interfere with police officers doing their duties. But Lowery and Reilly were minding their own business, peacefully going about doing their jobs when they were confronted by Ferguson police officers that fateful day, Aug. 13.
Lowery and Reilly were sitting inside a McDonald’s restaurant that reporters had been using as a staging area while covering the protests when police officers approached them and asked for identification. Although the journalists provided the officers with valid press credentials, they were subsequently ordered to leave. The police apparently decided they weren’t leaving fast enough.
A story published in Monday’s Washington Post said that Lowery was given conflicting information about where to exit and was trying to gather his belongings when officers grabbed him, slammed him into a soda machine and placed him in handcuffs. At the same time, Reilly was working on his laptop in the restaurant when he, too, was ordered to leave. Police handcuffed and arrested him before he could do so.
“Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous,” Martin Baron, Washington Post executive editor said in a statement Monday. “You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority. This latest action represents contemptible overreaching by prosecutors who seem to have no regard for the role of journalists seeking to cover a major story and following normal practice.”
Editors at the Huffington Post also condemned the charges, expressed support for Reilly and vowed to fight the charges in court.
“A crime was committed at the McDonald’s, not by the journalists, but by the local police who assaulted both Ryan and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post during violent arrests,” Ryan Grim, the Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief and Sam Stein, the site’s senior politics editor, said in a statement Monday. “If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.”
At least 11 journalists were arrested and several others threatened with arrest or tear-gassed while covering the protests. Police also tried to restrict the media to a designated area away from protests.
News organizations, civil rights and civil liberties advocates protested the treatment of journalists as a concerted effort to restrict the fundamental First Amendment rights of the public and the press. Even Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who was forced to resign in the wake of the incident, was reportedly shocked when told of the arrests of Lowery and Reilly.
President Obama voiced his support for journalists on the ground in Ferguson, stating at a news conference that “our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded, especially in moments like these.”
Many, myself among them, assumed authorities in Ferguson and St. Louis County would want to forego any further public embarrassments, especially in light of a scathing Justice Department report issued in March calling on city leaders to overhaul Ferguson’s criminal justice system.
The DOJ accused the city of so many constitutional violations that they could be corrected only by abandoning its entire approach to policing. The report described a city that used its police and courts as moneymaking ventures, a place where officers stopped and handcuffed people without probable cause, hurled racial slurs, used stun guns without provocation, and treated anyone as suspicious merely for questioning police tactics. We now know that included members of the press who dared to question or resist police orders.
Maybe, Ferguson officials were peeved over a civil rights lawsuit filed in March by four journalists arrested during the unrest against St. Louis County, the St. Louis County police and 20 police officers. The suit accuses the parties of “unlawful conduct undertaken with the intention of obstructing, chilling, deterring and retaliating against plaintiffs for engaging in constitutionally-protected speech, newsgathering and recording police activities.”
Maybe Ferguson just hasn’t learned a lesson in constitutional principle or believe they are above the law when it comes to matters of policing. Maybe they just don’t care about public perception, good public and media relations or taking the necessary steps to right past wrongs.
Whatever was behind the motivations that prompted authorities to issue the summons against Lowery and Reilly — when the reporters and seemingly everyone else had put the matter to rest — is uncalled for, unnecessary and un-Constitutional.