New D.C. ordinance governs police procedure at demonstrations, gatherings

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The chairwoman of the City Council this month signed the First Amendment Rights and Police Standard Act of 2004, a bill that First Amendment advocates hope will discourage unlawful arrests and restraints of protesters and journalists at gatherings in the nation’s capital.

The bill, authored by Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, was signed by Chairwoman Linda Cropp on Jan. 7 after being approved by the Council on Dec. 20, 2004. It will now go to Mayor Anthony Williams and Congress to be signed into law.

The city garnered negative national attention in September 2002 when police detained and arrested nonviolent protesters and journalists covering a meeting of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank. The city later admitted that police acted “improperly” when they arrested more than 400 bystanders and journalists — including student journalists. Four lawsuits against the city resulted from the arrests.

“The legislation underscores the historic role of Washington, D.C., as a place where citizens give voice to their political concerns,” said Patterson, a former journalist.

Although the bill’s primary focus is on police handling of demonstrations and protesters, it also includes a section on police-media relations. The bill requires the chief of police to establish a written policy on issuing police passes to media personnel. It also requires police to allow media representatives “reasonable access to promote public knowledge” of any gatherings or demonstrations.

Some journalism advocates say the bill is a step in the right direction, but falls short of giving journalists unfettered access to cover these events.

Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, testified at a City Council hearing of the bill in October 2004. Ideally, Leslie said, the bill would make explicit who should get media passes, or say how the government should decide who receives media credentials. By giving the police chief this power, the bill gives the chief too much discretion, Leslie said.

The mayor has 10 business days to sign the bill, after which it will be sent to Congress, where it could sit for 30 days. Although the law will not be in effect by the time President George W. Bush is inaugurated on Jan. 20, Leslie said the bill — and the arrests in 2002 — will certainly be on the minds of police and city officials as thousands gather to celebrate and protest the president’s second term.

“There is greater pressure on the police to get it right this time,” Leslie said. “Pressure to clamp down on security but also to be more aware of and sensitive to the civil rights of journalists and protesters.”

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