On the eve of the 2016 political conventions the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and RTDNA write to express their concerns for the safety of citizens and journalists exercising their First Amendment rights while observing and reporting on matters of public concern during expected protests in Cleveland, Philadelphia and other cities around the country.
Particularly, we are disappointed that government officials in Cleveland have remained steadfast in their ban on gasmasks in the event zone, while Philadelphia has no such prohibition. It is understandable that the list of prohibited items in both cities contain items that may be used as offensive weapons or may pose a threat to public safety; but we believe that those news organizations wishing to protect their employees and individuals desiring to protect themselves from exposure to airborne chemical agents while covering the news should be allowed to do so.
Additionally, the ban on backpacks and bags exceeding the size of 18” x 13” x 7” fails to take into account the amount of gear carried by journalists, in particular those who use such items to transport broadcast equipment. While we believe that the press may not have any greater right than the public to access, we also think that it short-sighted for municipalities that fail to recognize valid exceptions to any rule.
In preparation for the conventions, the NPPA, supported by a grant from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of SPJ, provided training to police in Cleveland and Philadelphia regarding the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists to photograph and record in public. We greatly appreciate those departments’ willingness to help avoid unnecessary and improper interference, harassment and arrests of those doing nothing more than exercising a constitutional right.
Despite those efforts, journalists are still being detained and arrested while covering newsworthy matters as we saw most recently in Rochester, N.Y., and Baton Rouge, La. We strongly object to these unwarranted abridgments of the First Amendment. Regrettably, it appears that some law enforcement agencies have yet to learn the lessons from similar arrests during protests in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, which are now costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle the ensuing civil rights lawsuits.
The NPPA will also be working with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in staffing a 24-hour a day hotline providing free legal aid to journalists facing arrest, detention or other such problems while covering the political conventions, or any protests or other events affiliated with the conventions. The hotline attorneys will also work with attorneys from who will be present in the convention cities, and will attempt to coordinate activities with other legal assistance organizations in both cities. That toll-free number is 800-336-4243. Lawyers can also be reached via email at email@example.com and via Twitter @rcfp and @nppalawyer.
For more information, contact:
Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, email@example.com
Mickey H. Osterreicher, NPPA general counsel, 716-983-7800, firstname.lastname@example.org