WASHINGTON, D.C. ‘ During an anti-war rally in the nation’s capital March 15, Caroline New, a student journalist from University of Pennsylvania, learned of a rather rowdy group of protesters and began shadowing their movements near the Washington Monument and the White House. When the protesters broke off the permitted march route and headed toward the World Bank headquarters, the Daily Pennsylvanian photography editor and other camera-toting students ran after them ‘ a decision that would result in their arrest.
The protesters, reported to be as few as 12 and as many as 50, entered the headquarters near 18th and H streets through two unlocked front doors and stormed past the security desk into the atrium, where they tore down decorations. Security officials sounded an alarm, effectively locking the doors. But the protesters smashed through a rear plate-glass window and door to escape as Metropolitan Police Department officers reached the scene.
New and Aaron Bernstein, a photographer with the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University, along with four film students, followed the protesters into the headquarters to photograph the ruckus, where they remained until law enforcement officers arrived. Police and Secret Service officers interrogated the students before handcuffing them and taking them to District jails, where they were detained over the weekend.
Police said five of the students were charged with unlawful entry, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and $100 fine. Those charges were dismissed on March 17 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. No information could be released about the sixth student, who is a minor.
New contends she was just doing her job by photographing the brief uprising, but police say journalists are not above the law when they enter a building without permission.
The arrests of these student photographers have again called into question D.C. police actions toward the media, especially college journalists, as they cover anti-war or anti-globalization protests that occur in the District.
Robert Becker, who represented New at the request of the Washington, D.C., professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the public is permitted inside the lobby of the World Bank. A World Bank official said visitors have access to the lobby on weekends but would not comment whether they would be allowed to photograph.
At the scene, New and Bernstein provided police with press credentials issued by the Philadelphia Police Department, but New said officers told her they would not honor the credentials because they were issued from a jurisdiction more than 100 miles away. Becker said D.C. police told him last fall that they would honor press credentials issued by police departments nationwide.
‘I have a hard time believing that [police officers] are busting professional [journalists] because their credentials are from police departments more than 100 miles away,’ Becker said.
Metropolitan Police Department Public Information Officer Joe Gentile said police decide whether they are going to honor outside jurisdictional credentials because they issue passes to bona fide news representatives. But he stressed having D.C. police passes would not matter ‘if journalists were allegedly in violation of the law.’
‘Having a news pass does not mean you can go beyond a police line or go into a building without authorization,’ Sgt. Gentile said.
Becker said police never told the students to leave the premises, a prerequisite to a charge of unlawful entry. New said a World Bank security officer tried feebly to get protesters to leave before sounding the alarm.
Channing Phillips, public information officer for the U.S. Attorney, said charges were ‘no papered.’ He said this happens when, in viewing all the evidence, there is no probable cause that a crime was committed, at least by the individuals charged.
New said police never read the students their Miranda rights before questioning them. This is a clear indication, Becker said, that the police saw the photographers as witnesses and not suspects. New said Secret Service agents told her at the scene that they had determined the students were there to photograph and were not involved in the vandalism. An agent would not confirm that but said the Secret Service did not file a report against the students.
In a letter to MPD Chief Charles Ramsey, Becker criticized police for taking a hard line with the students.
‘The investigators were far more interested in obtaining information that would help identify those who damaged the [World] Bank’s property. In short, there was absolutely no basis for the arrest,’ he said.
Becker, along with SPJ and the Student Press Law Center, has been in contact with D.C. police since last fall, when seven student journalists were arrested while covering demonstrations against International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. More than 650 protesters and bystanders were jailed during the demonstrations in September 2002. The media organizations have urged the police to recognize the student press as bona fide members of the media and honor their press credentials, which they say officers did not do during past demonstrations.
Four George Washington University student journalists and three law students who were arrested during the demonstrations filed a lawsuit in October against D.C. police, the U.S. Attorney General and the National Park Service. They contend they did not engage in any illegal conduct by being present during the protests. The office of their attorney, GW professor Jonathan Turley, confirmed the case is currently in settlement discussions. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a subsequent lawsuit against the police for their conduct during the demonstrations.
In response to media complaints surrounding the recent arrests, Chief Ramsey said in early April that police would be happy to discuss the issues at a sit-down meeting. He affirmed that D.C. police ‘support the rights of all journalists to carry out their work in a lawful, constitutionally protected manner.
‘Our policies and procedures do not distinguish university student journalists from other members of the news media,’ Ramsey said. ‘MPD members are expected to treat all media representatives in the same professional manner.’
As for New, she said she is weighing whether to contest her arrest and, at the very least, wants her arrest record expunged.
‘I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,’ she said. ‘[The protesters] stormed the building, and they all got away. We were the ones covering it, and we got arrested.’
How to avoid run-ins with police during rallies
1) Bring credentials. Every student journalist covering the event should have something that clearly identifies him or her as a member of the press.
2) Avoid the appearance of being a participant in the protests.
3) Bring a cell phone and at least $50 in cash. If detained or threatened with arrest, the ability to contact outside help fast can be important.
4) Obey all police orders. If ordered by police officials to leave an area or disperse, move outside the crowd and find a place to observe and cover as close as possible.
5) If arrested or detained, act immediately. Inform the police officers in question that you are a journalist there to cover the events and show them your press credentials.
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