For the past two months I have been tracking journalist arrests at Occupy protests around the country. It began mainly as attempt to bear witness, to understand if what I was seeing was an isolated few incidents, or a larger pattern. The Occupy protests come at time when the practices, norms and definitions of journalism are in great flux.
I’m tracking these journalist arrests because I’m concerned about the state of the First Amendment, and our willingness as a public and a democracy to defend it. These arrests are a symptom of a larger debate about how we understand the First Amendment in a digital age, as the institutions that traditionally embodied those freedoms shift and change. As more and more of our speech moves online and over mobile networks, and as our press is distributed across vast human and technological networks, we need to contend with new kinds of First Amendment issues.
When I first learned that journalists were getting arrested at Occupy events, I was reminded of the fall of 2008. As the Republican National Convention was kicking off in St. Paul, MN, there was a huge protest planned in the city. Not long after the RNC began I got word that journalists were being arrested alongside protesters across St. Paul. Perhaps the most high profile case was Amy Goodman and two Democracy Now! producers, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. The video of Salazar’s violent arrest still gives me chills. But they were just three of more than fifty journalists arrested that week (you can see the full list with links to more articles here).
Over at Free Press we were outraged. We launched an online petition and began organizing local citizens in St. Paul to call city hall. Within days we had more than 60,000 petition signatures and held a rally on the steps of City Hall, calling for the release of all detained journalists and demanding all charges be dropped. Most journalists were released a few days later and just a few months ago, Amy Goodman and other journalists received a settlement from the St. Paul police.
By my count, in the last two months 13 journalists have been arrested at Occupy events around the country, and numerous others were roughed up and pepper-sprayed. There have also been reports from at least two cities, New York City and Oakland, about police using strobe lights to stop people from filming police actions at protests.
While the number is nowhere near as high as in 2008, and the incidents are spread out across the country from New York City to Nashville to Oakland and beyond, people have started to take notice. There have been a few good reports by press freedom and journalism organizations like the Columbia Journalism Review, the First Amendment Center, the International Press Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Locally, some chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists have released statements and called on local officials to drop charges against journalists.
And yet, in general, I’ve been surprised at how little attention this issue has received. On the verge of an election year questions about the First Amendment, and the ability of journalists to cover protests, political rallies, and other high stakes situations couldn’t be more important. Election reporting over the next year will look nothing like media coverage of past presidential campaigns.
Political advertising is expected to reach an all-time high, and thanks to Citizens United it is harder than ever to follow the money back to its source. While broadcasters pocket huge windfalls from these political ads, most will not reinvest in their election coverage, but will instead provide the same kind of horse-race politics and campaign gossip they have provided for years. Citizen journalists, fed up with the lack of real coverage, will bring their camera phones and notebooks to cover local and national campaign events. Innovative journalism organizations will field unique pro-am reporting projects like the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus project from 2008. Social media and online news sites will play new roles in hosting political debate and connecting citizens to candidates in new ways. While there may not be a huge array of new tools since 2008, those tools we have are in the hands of many more people as smartphones become more affordable. In addition, networks like Twitter and Facebook have grown profoundly in the last four years.
However, the best reporting and most exciting developments in how people are covering elections are likely going to be a surprise to us. They can’t be listed because we haven’t thought of them yet. I expect to be awed in the coming year by smart journalists who work tirelessly to tell critical stories in new ways. And therein lies the danger of a narrow view of the First Amendment, one that privileges an outdated notion of who is a journalists and what journalism has to look like. We can’t afford to have journalists being locked up, or denied press credentials, or threatened by frivolous lawsuits designed to shut down their work.
Right around the same time I started tracking journalist arrests at Occupy events, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm wrote a post, “Freedom of the press applies to everyone — yes, even bloggers,” in which he quotes Judge Kermit Lipez, from a recent court case:
[C]hanges in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders [and] news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.
While there has been enormous hand-wringing about the state of journalism (I should know, I’ve wrung my fair share of hands on the topic) I believe there’s been too little concern about state of our First Amendment. As our media grows more participatory, more networked and more dynamic we need to value and understand the new ways that people are speaking, printing, and assembling. The Internet and technology have democratized the tools of media making, now we have to protect people’s right to use them.