Journalists Shouldn't Be Exempt from the Law

protesters gather in st louis after jason stockley acquittal

Suppose, gentle reader, that in the city where you live there is a trial taking place, one that has attracted considerable attention and is fraught with potential for unrest should the verdict not conform with the expectations of some of your fellow citizens. Now suppose further that when the verdict is handed down, those same citizens are indeed so displeased that they take to the streets to express their outrage.

But you, gentle reader, busy as you are with commitments to work and family, have not followed the story closely. Now aware of the controversy, you decide to attend a protest rally near your home, not so much to protest yourself but merely to be educated on the issues.

And now suppose that some of the gathered protesters are worked up into such a state that they vent their anger by breaking the windows of some of the local businesses. The police, many of whom are present on the perimeter, announce that violence will not be tolerated, and to that end they proclaim the gathering to be an unlawful assembly, directing all who wish to avoid arrest to leave the area.

You comfort yourself in the knowledge that you have not broken any windows or otherwise caused any harm, and you stick around to see how the police handle things, perhaps also to catch some interesting video on your cellphone. But when the police do swoop in, they fail to recognize you as the law-abiding citizen you are, and rather than send you on your way, they scoop you into the jug with all the hooligans whose conduct you sought to record.

When at last you have your day in court, you proclaim your innocence and even produce the video that shows you were nothing more than a curious onlooker when the lawbreaking started. What, then, gentle reader, should the justice system do with you?

You will find little comfort in this, but if the law were to be scrupulously followed, you would be found guilty of refusing to disperse from an unlawful assembly. This is an outrage, you say, as the video you shot proves you were but a bystander to the window breaking and other mischief that brought the law down on what had been a peaceful protest.

Today, dozens in the St. Louis area are becoming better informed on Missouri’s laws regarding unlawful assembly and failure to disperse, having been arrested last Sunday while protesting the Jason Stockley verdict. Among these is Mike Faulk, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who found police officers were unimpressed with his media credentials as they rounded him up along with 122 others when a protest in downtown St. Louis turned violent.

The newspaper’s editor, Gilbert Bailon, was critical of the police conduct. “When St. Louis police arrested Mike,” he said, “after he fully identified himself while covering the protests, they violated basic tenets of our democracy.”

Another basic tenet of our democracy is that the laws apply equally to everyone. We may debate the wisdom of arresting reporters in these circumstances, but, assuming the dispersal order was lawfully issued, we cannot debate the legality of Faulk’s arrest. There is simply no exemption in the law for journalists, and one can well imagine the problems that would arise if there were.

Yes, Mr. Faulk showed his media credentials to the police as they moved in, but should a credentialed reporter enjoy more privileges than an uncredentialled one? This leads to the question of who is a journalist. Is it only an employee of some mainstream newspaper or electronic media outlet, or can it be a blogger, a YouTube poster, or someone with seven followers on Twitter? Consider the confusion that would ensue if the police had to investigate the Internet trail of everyone they sought to arrest during a disturbance. “You can’t arrest me, officer, I posted a comment last week on a story at the Socialist Worker!”

This is not to say that police should never make accommodations for the media. It is in the interest of the police in St. Louis – or any city – to show events from their perspective. If the news of the day is filled with images of police firing tear gas, better that these images be accompanied by some showing the behavior that prompted such a response. The only way this can be achieved is by allowing reporters behind the skirmish lines, where they can see things as the police see them.

But if a reporter chooses to insert himself among people breaking windows for the sake of a dramatic photo or a compelling story, he runs the risk of being treated like any other member of the rabble when the police move to contain the violence. And let it be noted that the unrest that greeted the Stockley verdict has been mild when compared to that which followed the announcement that a grand jury had not indicted the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson three years ago. This is due at least in part to the fact that the police made it known they would facilitate lawful protests but tolerate no lawbreaking. Some needed a reminder that their sense of outrage did not entitle them to destroy their fellow citizens’ property or to interfere with others’ movement through the streets.

When I joined the Los Angeles Police Department in the early ‘80s, the press relations officer was Lieutenant Dan Cooke, who instructed us on encounters with members of the press. We should prevent reporters from entering a crime scene, Lt. Cooke told us, but not a disaster area. “A reporter has the right to get himself killed covering a story,” he said. Then, with a wink, he added, “and it’s about time it happened.”

We can say the same thing about getting arrested. And as for Mr. Faulk, having run through the criminal justice mill, he’s probably the envy of the newsroom. Look for his colleagues seeking to get arrested at the first opportunity.