Ferguson: Press Freedom Under Fire



Ferguson: Press Freedom Under Fire
The following text has been adapted from an August 10, 2015 blog post, by PEN American Center.

Ferguson Anniversary Protests11-year old Amarion Allen stands in front of a police line on August 9, 2015. (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Charges of trespassing and interfering with a police officer have been brought against Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly in St. Louis County, nearly a year after they were arrested while covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri—one week before the one-year statute of limitations was set to expire on the trespassing charge. Each count carries a possible $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

This is a deeply troubling sign of St. Louis authorities' continuing lack of respect for First Amendment rights. To date, there have been 52 reported incidents of press freedom violations by police in Ferguson: 21 journalists arrested; 11 incidents of obstructing the media; 13 incidents of journalists threatened with guns, other weapons, or bodily harm; and 7 incidents of journalists tear gassed, hit with rubber bullets/bean bag rounds, or pushed by police. It has also been reported that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring the Black Lives Matter movement since protests erupted in Ferguson last summer.

In addition to these troubling developments, Ferguson police have arrested dozens of #BlackLivesMatter activists on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death at the hands of a police officer (a fate that has been shared by at least 1,083 Americans since Brown's death). These protesters, including DeRay McKesson, Johnetta Elzie, and Cornel West, face up to thirty days in jail and a fine for being charged with "disturbance on federal property," after staging a sit-in at the federal courthouse in St. Louis on Monday, August 10, 2015.

McKesson and Elzie received the 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award from PEN New England, a chapter of PEN American Center.


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Please SIGN the petition at the bottom of this page to join PEN Center USA's appeal to St. Louis County prosecutors:

  • For the charges levied against Ryan J. Reilly and Wesley Lowery to be dropped, as these charges stem from Reilly and Lowery's peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

And to Ferguson, St. Louis County, and other municipal police departments involved in the response to the Ferguson protests, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, in accordance with PEN American Center's report Press Freedom Under Fire in Ferguson:

  • To immediately and thoroughly investigate all alleged incidents of violations of press freedoms, and implement appropriate disciplinary measures against any officer found to be responsible for violations;
  • To establish a clear policy, in consultation with local journalists and press outlets and media rights organizations, for the policing of public protests that emphasizes respect for the rights to assembly and freedom of the press;
  • To train officers on that policy, and clearly communicate the disciplinary consequences of failing to comply with the policy.

Background

On August 13, 2014, Lowery and Reilly were working in a McDonald's near the scene of protests in Ferguson when police officers entered the restaurant and asked to see their press credentials. The officers returned shortly after and ordered them to leave. Lowery and Reilly attempted to comply, but were nonetheless arrested. On August 14, 2014, an account by Lowery of the details of his arrest was published in the Washington Post. The incident received widespread media attention, and drew sharp criticism of local police for their treatment of Lowery and Reilly, as well as many other journalists engaged in legitimate newsgathering activities.

With one week to go before the one-year statute of limitations on the trespassing charge was set to expire, Lowery received a court summons dated August 6, 2015. According to the summons, “Lowery is being charged with trespassing on private property despite being asked to leave,” the Post reports. “He is also charged with interfering with a police officer’s performance of his duties because, the summons alleges, he failed to comply with ‘repeated commands to immediately exit’ the restaurant.”

PEN American Center's report Press Freedom Under Fire in Ferguson documented fifty-two alleged incidents of press freedom violations committed by St. Louis-area police during the 2014 protests, including Lowery and Reilly's arrests. The charges against the two carry a punishment of up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.

"Bringing charges against journalists who were wrongly arrested while doing their jobs is yet another indication of St. Louis authorities' disregard for First Amendment freedoms," said Katy Glenn Bass, Deputy Director of PEN American Center's Free Expression Programs. "And bringing the charges now, at a time when crowds are once again gathered in Ferguson in protest, seems intended to send a message to journalists and protesters that their rights will not be respected either. These charges should be dropped immediately."


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