By Krista Carney
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon swept through the country with sensationalized images of protestors camped out in tents behind barricades and monitored by police. The movement attracted national attention and led to widespread media coverage of the action itself along with the actors involved. However, reporters began to become a part of the story. With 26 reported arrests of journalists during Occupy protests across the country, major questions have been raised concerning freedom of the press and freedom of speech in America.
May times, reporters were forced to stay behind barricades blocks away from the protests and law enforcement actions often took place at times to attempt to evade press coverage. For example, when police evicted protestors from Zucotti Park, they started the raid at 1:00 a.m. assuming that members of the press would not be present. They also even asked press for credentials, but kicked them out anyway.
Traditionally press credentials are obtained through the venue that the particular event is taking place. Permission is granted from a reporter’s editor who then assists when submitting paperwork to the venue. Coverage of events on government or public property typically does not require permission due to the fact that the property is in the public domain.
While it is understandable for police to maintain order, arresting journalists because they are present and covering the protests is unconstitutional under the First Amendment that guarantees the freedom of the press. However, law enforcement insisted they only arrested reporters who did not have credentials distributed by police departments throughout the country. The distribution of credentials is an essential portion of the bureaucracy of the news industry, but in these circumstances it seems to resemble a licensing system.
A licensing system is when press outlets must first ask permission to publish content and, if deemed acceptable, are then given a license from the government to distribute the news. This form of censorship has historically been seen as problematic and labeled as “prior restraint.” The First Amendment guarantees that the press would not need permission before attempting to report the news, the exact restriction that law enforcement surrounding Occupy has attempted. Requiring credentials to cover the Occupy protests resembles the licensing system our founding fathers eliminated when fighting to be an independent and free country.
When looking at legal precedence concerning prior restraint and licensing of reporters, the Supreme Court stresses the importance of freedom of the press. Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938), involved a Georgia statute requiring permission from the city before distributing literature within city limits. Lovell was charged with distributing a religious pamphlet without first obtaining a permit. The Court ruled that liberty of the press is a right that allows publishing and distribution of materials without obtaining a license and the ordinance did, in fact, violate the first amendment. The requiring of a license here is very similar to the restriction of press presence at Occupy protests. How can reporters write a story if they aren’t allowed around the event in order to know what is going on? The ability of police officers to arrest reporters is problematic for ensuring freedom of the press- especially on public property such as government parks where free speech has typically been guaranteed as a public forum right.
Even in the haphazard atmosphere of the Occupy protests, journalists should be able to cover these types of events because they concern the majority of Americans and are of interest to society. It is a constitutionally guaranteed right that must be upheld, even when it may seem to be a nuisance for law enforcement to work around and with the press.
From these incidents, we have learned the importance of the freedom of the press and reporter’s rights when out covering events. Now we must learn from these instances and future crises and events be sure to allow press access and ensure fulfillment of the right to freedom of the press.