Journalists Arrested While Doing Their Job: The Legal Restrictions of Newsgathering at Demonstrations
By Kieran K. Meadows
Inside the Xcel Center the first week of September, the Republican National Convention was finally getting underway after a slow start because of Hurricane Gustav. Outside the convention center on the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota, a completely different story was unfolding. Thousands of protesters had converged in St. Paul to take part in demonstrations or engage in acts of in civil disobedience. More than 800 people were arrested, including many reporters who were covering the convention story.
“If you were a journalist covering the protesters, then you were subject to any number of these tactics,” said Sharif Abdel Kouddous, referring to police crowd control tactics such as concussion grenades, tear gas, mace, and police on horseback. Kouddous, a producer of the nationally syndicated TV/radio news program Democracy Now!, was arrested twice while covering the protests.
“It made it difficult and dangerous to be on the street,” he said. “The fact that you had a camera with a press ID didn’t seem to matter.”
During the week of the RNC, police detained or arrested nearly 50 journalists, including independent media and traditional media journalists, according to the Minnesota Independent. Some were arrested violently and sustained injuries inflicted by police, actions that drew a sharp rebuke from the organization Reporters Without Borders. Some journalists were released right away, but many spent at least a night in jail. These events illustrate the challenges journalists face in covering this type of story. A series of legal questions arise around issues of censorship, prior restraint and newsgathering restrictions all related to First Amendment rights.