Media groups protest student journalists’ arrests, seek police department policy barring interference with newsgathering

WASHINGTON,D.C. — As the Nation’s Capital prepares for a major protest March 15thagainst war with Iraq, media groups protested the arrests of six studentjournalists from area university newspapers during the International MonetaryFund protests last fall. In a letter to Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H.Ramsey, they requested establishment of a departmental policy barring officersfrom detaining or arresting student or professional journalists coveringdemonstrations.In the letter, the Society of Professional Journalists,the Student Press Law Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of thePress told Chief Ramsey the “student journalists were not participants in theprotests, did not break any laws, and did not impede legitimate law enforcementefforts. The arrests clearly violate the First Amendment rights of the studentreporters to gather and disseminate news about the demonstrations.” Nonetheless,they were corralled in a downtown park along with hundreds of demonstrators,loaded on busses and detained until early the next morning, a Saturday. Thestudent reporters were fingerprinted and photographed in violation of departmentpolicy governing processing of individuals accused of civil infractions, andtold that if they did not pay $50 fines they might remain in jail until thecourts opened Monday morning.At the time Chief Ramsey insisted that theprotesters in the park had been ordered to disperse and that police moved in toarrest them only after they refused to leave. But a report issued last week bythe department’s internal affairs unit concluded that “police never intended toscatter the crowd – which had massed in Pershing Park after a morning of rovingdemonstrations – but instead had planned to surround the park and arrest thoseinside,” The Washington Post reported.SPJ’s D.C. ProfessionalChapter, the SPLC and the Reporters Committee requested a meeting with ChiefRamsey “to discuss procedures for ensuring that student journalists will not bedetained or arrested while covering news events in Washington, and to establishlines of communication with MPD officials who have authority to locate andrelease them if they are detained. In addition, we would like you to establish aclear policy for the Metropolitan Police Department prohibiting officers fromdetaining student or professional journalists who are covering events, and whohave violated no laws while doing their jobs.”Some professionaljournalists were detained in the same roundup, but they obtained legalassistance through their news organizations and were released quickly. When alawyer representing students from the George Washington UniversityHatchet attempted to obtain release of two of the paper’s reporters she wasunable to locate anyone with authority to release them.SPJ and theStudent Press Law Center are working with local student newspapers to advisethem on obtaining police press credentials that may alleviate some of thedifficulties their reporters encountered in the IMF protests. But theyanticipate that reporters for student newspapers across the country will come toWashington for the March 15th demonstration and future anti-war andanti-globalization protests, and D.C. police will not recognize their studentmedia credentials.The Society of Professional Journalists is the oldestand largest association in the United States of reporters, editors and newsmedia executives from print and electronic media. The D.C. Professional Chapterincludes about 350 journalists who report on national politics and the federalgovernment for media outlets across the country. It has student chapters atAmerican University, GWU and the University of Maryland. These professional andstudent journalists have a vital interest in protecting the public’s right tothe free flow of information about events in Washington.The StudentPress Law Center is the nation’s only legal assistance agency devotedexclusively to educating high school and college journalists about the rightsand responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment and supporting the studentnews media in their struggle to cover important issues free from censorship. TheCenter provides free legal advice and information, educational materials forstudent journalists, and operates an Attorney Referral Network of approximately150 lawyers across the country who provide free legal representation whennecessary. Approximately 2,000 student journalists, teachers and others contactthe Center each year for help or information.The Reporters Committee forFreedom of the Press is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters andeditors that works to defend the First Amendment rights and freedom ofinformation interests of the news media. The Reporters Committee has providedrepresentation, guidance and research in First Amendment and Freedom ofInformation Act litigation since 1970.

Mark Goodman, executive directorStudent Press Law Center703-807-1904Read letterRead Previous Coverage