Wick Communications

‘Media bin?’ Really?

In Media law on July 30, 2010 at 8:42 am

Hey, did you see that story the other day about the Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested while covering the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

It probably didn’t make more than a blip on your radar – just another in an endless series of minor skirmishes over access that have long pit reporters against law enforcement agents.

Well, I’d like to talk about it for a moment. I should start by saying, I’m more than a bit biased; I know Doug Belkin, the reporter who was arrested, and can tell you there are few reporters anywhere any better than he. We worked together before his Journal gig. Here’s something else you should know about him: He wouldn’t hurt a fly.

So when I read this in the Boston Globe, my jaw hit the floor:

U.S. Marshals spokeswoman Belkis Cantor said Belkin stepped out of the “media bin” after being told not to and “made gestures as to try to almost hit” a deputy U.S. marshal.

Excuse me, but did she say, “Media bin?” I can think of very, very few occasions that call for cordoning the press in a “bin,” and those occasions do not include the trials of disgraced politicians. At the very least, reporters should have the same access as the general public, and there isn’t a big enough bin in Chicago to house the general public…

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law…” abridging freedom of the press. In fact, it also says the state can’t impeded “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The framers used the word “Congress” but legal scholars know that to mean any branch of local, state or federal government – including the U.S. Marshal Service.

So here’s the question for us: What should we do when a government agent attempts to restrict our access while we are on the job? If only the answer were simple.

I absolutely want you to follow reasonable rules and the ordinary everyday commands of law enforcement. Every day-to-day argument over access is not a Constitutional standoff.

First, consider the assignment. In the vast majority of instances, it is simply easier to let the police “police.” There are legitimate, legally permissible reasons why officers might ask you to stand back or in one place for a while. He may think it unsafe to get closer. He may think you are interfering with law enforcement. Generally speaking you should be polite and accommodating.

You should take the time to revisit relevant law. For example, law enforcement in California is expressly forbidden from keeping the press away from natural disaster zones, including the aftermath of earthquake or wildfire. Good to know.

And you should know that there may come a time in the course of your career when a story is big enough that you have to follow your own judgment and conscience even if it means disobeying a police officer.

I will be absolutely shocked if the charges against Belkin aren’t dropped and soon.

Clay

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