Mass. police deny college reporters press passes because they are not ‘professional’

The Massachusetts State Police said this month that itwill not issue press passes to journalists at Boston College because thestudents are not members of the “professional” media.

Student journalistsat The Heights newspaper sought the press passes in September forprotection from arrest by police when covering riots and protests.

RyanHeffernan, The Heights news editor, said the newspaper requested presspasses after “stepping up its scope of coverage,” and in reaction to the arrestsof student journalists during a 2002 protest of the International Monetary Fundin Washington, D.C.

“I can’t think of one reason why college journalistscannot be afforded the same privileges that are afforded to their commercialcounterparts,” Heffernan said. “We work just as hard, and are just as committedand dedicated.”

The police originally told the students they could havepress passes, but later denied the request after the students drove 30 miles topolice headquarters in Framingham to obtain the passes, Heffernansaid.

“The State Police denied the students News Reporter IdentificationCards because they did not meet the qualifications as set forth in the governingrules and regulations,” the state police department said in a statement. “Weare very sympathetic to their interest in obtaining a card. However, it isimportant to note that these cards allow people access to restricted areas andit is therefore necessary for us to place some limitations on how and to whomthey are distributed.”

Heffernan has appealed the department’sdenial.

According to state police department spokesman David Parsons,there is no law in Massachusetts that regulates who may receive press passes. Parsons said The Heights was denied passes because the studentjournalists do not meet the department’s requirement of receiving a salary froma media organization.

Heffernan said he would personally take the issueto court if the passes are not granted.

“This goes against the rights ofall journalists,” Heffernan said. “A blow to one is a blow toall.”

SPLC View: Courts have ruled that government agenciescannot arbitrarily decide who gets a press pass and who does not. That seems tobe what is going on here. In the landmark decision Sherrill v. Knight , thecourt ruled that media access “cannot be denied arbitrarily or for less thancompelling reasons.” The court also ruled that agencies must publish thestandards used in deciding whether an applicant is eligible to receive a presspass and give the petitioner an opportunity to appeal. Courts have alsosuggested that giving preferential treatment to certain media organizations butnot others may violate the First Amendment because it allows the government toinfluence which public events receive media coverage.