RNC arrestsThree weeks after the Republican National Convention came to St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman announced that the city will drop charges of unlawful assembly against journalists stemming from protests outside of the Xcel Energy Center. The Associated Press quoted Coleman’s prepared statement: “This decision reflects the values we have in St. Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press.”

In the weeks leading to this decision, journalists across the country have shared outrage, disappointment, and anger at the sheer number of their own arrested throughout the four-day event. And yet, in decrying the treatment of their credentialed peers, journalists fail to recognize that every citizen has a First Amendment right to record events taking place on a public street, including police actions.

This right has been identified in federal court, specifically in Robinson v. Fetterman and Smith v. City of Cumming. The United States Supreme Court has also articulated, in Branzburg v. Hayes, that the First Amendment right to freedom of the press applies not only to the mainstream and well-funded press, but also to the “lonely pamphleteer.” With the rise of handheld technology and the internet, today’s “lonely pamphleteer,” the blogger or citizen journalist, has gone from an abstract idea to a reality relatively quickly. For example, citizen journalism non-profit the UpTake had a notable presence at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, streaming tons of live footage of protester and police clashes with the use of cell phones.

So, who IS a journalist? What criteria will determine who qualifies for dropped charges and who does not? And why aren’t we hearing more outrage from journalists concerning First Amendment rights violations in general, rather than solely addressing the rights of traditional journalists?

A forum sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists held at the University of Minnesota Monday evening sought to identify what went right and what went wrong with media and law enforcement during the RNC. Moderated by the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins, the panel included St. Paul Dep. Mayor Ann Mulholland, KARE-11 photojournalist Jonathan Malat, Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom and Pioneer Press reporter Mara Gottfried.

Notably absent from the panel was a representative of alternative media, although as the conversation ensued, concerned citizens and journalists from alternative media outlets took their turn at the microphone. Charlie Underwood, who was a street medic during the protests, disputed the focus on journalists. “Are you trying to reserve a special category of citizen that does not get pepper sprayed, that does not get arrested, that does not have the same punitive things happen to them under these situations of police brutality that the rest of us do?” he asked.

Bennett Gordon
9/26/2008 9:42:07 AM

Hi Chelsey, I have to object to your reading of the first amendment (and Steven Aggergaard’s). There are three different clauses of the first amendment that I think are being conflated into one. Congress is prohibited from abridging: 1. “the freedom of speech” 2. “or of the press” 3. “The right of the people peaceably to assemble” I think you could make an argument that the government violated all three of these rights during the RNC. However, all three are different rights. As Amy Goodman has been known to say, “There’s a reason why our profession [the press] is the only one explicitly protected by the U.S. constitution.” It’s because the right to free speech is different from the freedom of the press. Both are important, but to conflate the two and to expand the protections afforded to the press out to everyone would actually cheapen those very protections. Who should be given the protections of the freedom of the press? I’m not sure. I think I’m with Potter Stewart on his definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Jake Mohan
9/25/2008 9:45:01 AM

I'm glad Aggergaard emphasized that everyone, not just journalists, has the right to gather in public places and photograph, record, or otherwise document whatever transpires. I think some authorities, especially those in law enforcement, are increasingly suspicious of this proliferation of cheap and convenient video/photo technology, because it's hard to regulate and they never know when they might be in the camera's eye. But citizens have the right to use such technology in public places. As more video emerges from the RNC, especially some pretty damning footage of the mass arrests, it holds those in power to a new standard of accountability. This is a good thing. And it's all perfectly legal.

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