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Law enforcement apologies don’t go far enough


Contacts: Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ president, 317/633-9385; Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, 312/222-5184

INDIANAPOLIS - Journalists should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs, and apologies for their rough handling at high-profile news events don’t go far enough, said the president of the nation’s largest journalism organization, the Society of Professional Journalists.

Associated Press radio reporter Brian Bland and a Chicago Tribune reporter Flynn McRoberts were detained and later charged with obstructing a public way while covering a rally Tuesday outside the Democratic National Convention. CNN technician Dana Hopper was carrying a microphone at a protest Wednesday, jabbed by police with a baton and knocked to the ground. The incident was captured on tape.

“I was doing my job, and at no time did any officer ever tell me or any of the other people involved that they were holding an illegal assembly,” said AP reporter Bland, a longtime SPJ member. “I was lucky and was released from jail faster than the protesters. I couldn’t believe they had to spend two nights in that place.”

If convicted, Bland and McRoberts face up to a year in jail.

“Reporting equipment was seized. Journalists spent time in jail. And a reporter was assaulted. Clearly, the public wasn’t served by any of this,” Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ board president. “It all happened because of overzealous actions by police that cannot be justified.”

The Society stands ready to offer assistance from its Legal Defense Fund. This week’s confrontations are the latest in a string of conflicts involving journalists and law enforcement officers. The Society recently awarded a $1,000 Legal Defense Fund grant to Brian Hansen, a former reporter for the Colorado Daily newspaper, who was arrested in 1999 on federal criminal misdemeanor charges while covering a protest of the U.S. Forest Service. If convicted, Hansen could be fined $5,000, sentenced to six months in jail or both.

Journalists covering the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle also launched similar complaints about police brutality and disrespect for their jobs.

“Journalists can't be expected to do their jobs from a distance,” said Christine Tatum, national chairwoman of the Society’s Legal Defense Fund. “We are bystanders who must often step into the middle of conflict to ensure accurate, complete and fair information. Law enforcement officials must learn how to make a distinction between those who are covering the news and those who are making it - which isn’t that difficult. If people are walking around with notebooks and cameras and presenting professional credentials, their mission is clear.”

Attorney Bruce Brown, SPJ’s First Amendment counsel at Baker & Hostetler LLP in Washington, D.C., said increasing incidents between journalists and police officers are disturbing.

“Newsgathering is an activity protected by the First Amendment,” Brown said, “and police forces around the country seem to be forgetting that.”

For the complete news story, see The Associated Press via The Washington Post.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. 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.

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