By Corey Friedman
Police raised thorny legal questions this week when they arrested a newspaper reporter covering an NAACP-led protest at the North Carolina General Assembly.
Tim Funk, a religion writer for the Charlotte Observer, was charged with trespassing and failure to disperse. The state’s largest daily newspaper says Funk was documenting a mass arrest inside the legislative building and should have been left alone.
“We believe there was no reason to detain him,” Managing Editor Cheryl Carpenter said in an Observer news story. “He wasn’t there to do anything but report the story, to talk to Charlotte clergy. He was doing his job in a public place.”
For the past seven weeks, the state NAACP chapter has organized “Moral Monday” protests at the legislative building to demonstrate against the Republican-led General Assembly’s conservative policies on education, heath care and voter identification. Some protesters have passively resisted police orders to leave the legislative building and were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
Wilson County residents have taken part in the high-profile protests, and former county Democratic Party Chairman Asa Gregory was arrested with fellow demonstrators on June 3.
Funk found himself handcuffed not because he wanted to defy authority, but because he wanted to witness the mass arrest. When police accused him of trespassing and arrested him along with the protesters he was trying to interview, they perhaps unwittingly raised questions about the legality and legitimacy of the dispersal orders they gave.
Journalists have a vital mission — to seek truth and report it. In a nod to the importance of a free and independent press, the courts have recognized a limited reporter’s privilege rooted in the First Amendment that prevents journalists from being forced to testify about confidential sources.
In most cases, however, journalists have the same rights — no more, no fewer — as other private citizens. Police don’t lift the crime scene tape for news photographers and firefighters don’t escort reporters into burning homes. Journalists aren’t above the law, and we’re not suggesting they should be.
But we wonder what General Assembly police accomplished when they hauled a veteran newsman away in shackles. Did his arrest make anyone safer? Who was the victim of his supposed crime?
The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to free speech, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. Protesters were exercising those rights in Raleigh, and whether or not we agree with the purpose of their demonstration, we all should respect and vigorously defend their freedom to do so.
Police are in the unenviable position of balancing protesters’ First Amendment rights with the safety and smooth flow of foot traffic in a public building. We recognize that state statutes defining trespassing are often necessary to prevent disorder.
However, authorities have not articulated why demonstrators needed to be ejected from the building in the first place. If they weren’t preventing lawmakers and citizens from crossing the halls and the area remained open to the general public, we fail to see a lawful reason for the mass arrest.
Reporters don’t have more rights than the general public, but protesters don’t have fewer. If others were allowed to come and go freely, then ordering only the demonstrators away appears to be viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
By arresting a reporter trying to document the protesters’ arrests, police have opened themselves up to more scrutiny over whether such measures are necessary for either journalists or demonstrators.
[M.E. Note: Reporters were arrested during the 2008 protests of both the DNC and RNC. Photography Is Not A Crime founder Carlos Miller was also arrested during an Occupy Miami evacuation, while with the rest of the press. He was later found not guilty after a trial last November.]
[Note II: This editorial originally appeared in the Wilson Times.]
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