NYPD or City Hall: Who’s Responsible for Reporter’s Rights?

Since the surprise raid on Occupy Wall Street’s encampment in Zuccotti Park last Tuesday,  Mayor Bloomberg’s office has been in

Since the surprise raid on Occupy Wall Street’s encampment in Zuccotti Park last Tuesday,  Mayor Bloomberg’s office has been in full spin mode. First defending the actions of the New York Police Department, then minimizing the magnitude of Thursday’s demonstrations and now loudly arresting an Al Qaeda sympathizer and would-be terrorist the FBI had determined wasn’t a major threat.

On November 15, the mayor defended the media blackout that kept reporters out of Zuccotti Park as the NYPD evicted its occupants, claiming it was for the media’s own good. “It’s to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press,” the mayor said.

But in light of reports that journalists were wrongfully arrested and bullied, the New York Civil Liberties Union appears to be offering some additional protection.

“Many of you were roughed up, harassed and even arrested yesterday,” read an email sent out to reporters by an NYCLU employee last week. The email urged reporters to come forward with stories of abuse from the Tuesday raid.

“Problems with the NYPD? Let me know,” it said. “If need be, we can speak on background only or we can keep names and other identifiers confidential.”

The NYCLU did not return request for comment, but we caught up with Norman Siegel, the longtime director of group, and a legal adviser to protesters. In 2009, Mr. Siegel successfully sued the city for police press credentials for non-traditional journalists.

“The bearer of a press card is entitled to cross police lines and barriers for breaking news events,” Mr. Siegel explained. “Monday night clearly was that.” There is a provision to deny press access, but the order must come from a supervising officer or DCPI, not just any officer on the street, he explained.

“It’s possible that a lot of what happened is a violation of NYPD patrol guides,” he said. He was summoned down to Zuccotti Park himself at 1 a.m. the morning of the raid. In past demonstrations, Mr. Siegel and other civil liberties advocates cooperated with the police to counsel protesters on their rights and reduce total arrest counts. Mr. Siegel was denied access to Zuccotti Park alongside reporters that morning, when arrests totaled more than 200.

Mr. Siegel was quick to add history shows the government can not delegate fundamental rights like the First Amendment to law enforcement.

“It was unseemly for the city, through its police department, to deny journalists their right to report the news,” he said.

(It is worth nothing that it was the Mayor’s office, not DCPI, that defended NYPD’s arrest of reporters.)

“The reporter is not only doing his job,” Mr. Siegel said, “under the First Amendment, they’re doing their job for all of us.”

DCPI Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne reiterated Mr. Siegel’s description of NYPD’s limited mandate on The Brian Lehrer Show on NPR on Friday, when he explained that NYPD is only concerned with unlawful conduct.

“We’re not in the business of judging whether a movement has political steam or not,” Mr. Browne said.

He went on to explain that no reporters were arrested at Zuccotti Park during the raid, where reporters cooperated and were held two blocks back. As for the arrests of reporters made later that day elsewhere in lower Manhattan, they might not have happened with more oversight.

“Had we had somebody there, DCPI would probably try to accommodate a reporter getting caught up in a situation with a group pushing through police lines,” he explained. He added that the five reporters had their arrests voided.

Mr. Browne made no defense for keeping media out of the Zuccotti raid altogether, explaining that a press pass does not mean the automatic right to cross police lines.

“There are other provisions,” he said, “providing basically we allow it at that moment.”

“Just like a crime scene, we’ll bring reporters in after the fact.”

NYPD or City Hall: Who’s Responsible for Reporter’s Rights?