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Chicago Chapter Fights City Press Credentials

From the May Issue of SPJ Report


By Bob Roberts

The Headline Club is girding for what could be its biggest access battle in many years, and it involves the most basic of media rights: the right to cover stories.

After sitting ignored among city statutes for years, the Chicago Police Department has decided to dust off a never-enforced ordinance (Chapter 4, Section 328, Paragraphs 010-080) governing the issuance of press credentials and begin enforcing them.

Old credentials were set to expire March 31, and by then, the entire press corps was expected to report to Police Headquarters for mug shots and fingerprinting. Police personnel have told chapter members and officers that background checks are possible, as are the taking of DNA samples.

Why members of the media must be subjected to much the same processes that criminal suspects are subjected is a question that, in this writer’s view, defies a constitutionally acceptable answer. As Omaha, Neb., news executives underscored when convincing that city’s police department not to go forward with similar proposals in December, undertaking such requirements amounts to the licensing of the news media.

Jon A. Duncan, Headline Club attorney, notes that the ordinance is outdated, in that it makes no mention of television or online journalists. Instead, it allows for credentials to be issued to “news-reel” photographers. The last newsreels, which were shown in movie theatres and from which early television newscasts sometimes obtained footage, were produced around 1960.

Nor, he says, does the ordinance allow for the credentialling of free-lancers.

Duncan says this about the possibility of background checks: “There is no basis in the ordinance for delaying the issuance of a press credential until a background check is made. The only thing remotely similar is that ordinance provides that the Superintendent of Police may revoke a previously-issued credential ‘for improper use.’ ”

No one contacted can recall the ordinance being enforced to the letter of the law. Although the committee contemplated under the statute would give a majority of the seats to the media, the current administration is adept at selecting appointees who are willing to bend to the administration’s desires.

It’s clear that our best hope is for the city to back off in the face of media complaints. Our next step should be to let editors and executives of all print, broadcast, and online media in the city, as well as wire services and journalists’ groups, know of our concerns. We must urge them to voice their own concerns to the mayor in hopes that a storm of media protests will prompt Mayor Daley and Police Supt. Terry Hillard to back down.

I would advise participation in a City Hall committee of the type outlined under the ordinance only if reasoning fails. The Tribune is rumored to be ready to file a lawsuit. I believe SPJ should be ready to file an amicus brief or our own suit, should all else fail.

The club, which discussed this issue March 22 at a brown bag luncheon, must continue to make clear that it believes in credentialling so long as all reporters who need credentials are allowed them. Fingerprinting, and the possibility of background checks or DNA sampling, is not what I would consider reasonable, constitutional, or something to which reporters should subject themselves.

Perhaps the Club could explore with the Department a means of setting up a system similar to that used to credential free-lancers in New York. News organizations there that employ free-lancers obtain “Reserve Cards” that are issued on an assignment-to-assignment basis by editors to the reporters who need them, to be returned at the end of each assignment.

New York’s press corps has had access problems, particularly since Sept. 11. We must make sure that similar problems do not happen in Chicago.


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