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SPJ calls St. Louis County charges against journalists for covering Ferguson ‘ridiculous’


August 11, 2015

Dana Neuts, SPJ National President, 360-920-1737 (PDT), dneuts@spj.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is astounded and dismayed that St. Louis County, Mo., is bringing charges against Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, Ryan J. Reilly of the Huffington Post and Tom Walters, CTV's Los Angeles bureau chief, for events surrounding their coverage of the Ferguson, Mo., protests a year ago.

“It is ridiculous – not to mention a violation of the First Amendment – for the county to press charges against these journalists for simply reporting the news,” said Dana Neuts, SPJ national president. “County officials clearly have learned nothing in the last year about the First Amendment and the rights of journalists to cover the news without interference or threats.”

SPJ believes that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. When law enforcement, military or government agencies prevent journalists from doing their jobs, through force, intimidation or other unwarranted unethical practices, it creates a slippery slope in which democracy is compromised. Part of SPJ’s mission is to not only educate and support journalists in their efforts to do their jobs ethically and credibly, but to help others understand the rights of journalists as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and ways these groups can co-exist and work together in a peaceful, mutually respectable manner.

In the past, SPJ, in collaboration with the National Press Photographers Association, has provided training for law enforcement, journalists and citizens in a half dozen communities to educate everyone on the rights and responsibilities for anyone to photograph or take video in public.

“One year ago, SPJ extended an offer to train the Ferguson Police Department and other city and county officials on the First Amendment and strategies in which they could cooperatively work with journalists. We again extend the offer because clearly, education is desperately needed in that community,” Neuts said.

The charges brought by St. Louis County stem from events in August 2014 when Lowery and Reilly were detained at a McDonald’s while covering demonstrations sparked by a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black 18-year-old.

According to The Washington Post, a court summons dated Aug. 6 was sent to Lowery ordering him to appear in St. Louis County municipal court on Aug. 24. The summons notes he could be arrested if he does not appear. Reilly and Walters reportedly have received a similar summons.

“These reporters should never have been arrested in the first place. The abuse of authority that continues in St. Louis County is appalling. SPJ strongly believes these charges are outrageous and must be dropped immediately,” Neuts said.

Lowery is slated to participate on a panel related to news coverage of Ferguson, and the rights and responsibilities journalists have in covering protests, at SPJ's Excellence in Journalism 2015 national conference next month in Orlando, Fla.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For SPJ, please more information about visit spj.org.