SPLC advises on Presidential Inauguration reporting

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Student Press Law Center is advising college journalists who plan to cover events surrounding the Presidential Inauguration to be held January 20 in Washington, D.C., to take several precautionary steps to avoid being arrested or detained by police as were student reporters and photographers attempting to cover past demonstrations in the city.

Although the District of Columbia police will soon be required by a new city ordinance to implement a written policy governing interactions between the police and media, the Center offers some advice for college student media members planning to cover inaugural events and surrounding protests that could help them avoid problems. The SPLC recommends:

1) Bring credentials. Every student journalist covering an event should have something that clearly identifies him or her as a member of the press. D.C. police have said that they recognize official media credentials issued by any government law enforcement agency. Thus a personalized credential from your local, county or state police department is the best identification. If that is not available or cannot be obtained in time for the event, an official credential document identifying the journalist by name and photo as a member of their publication staff is less preferred alternative.

2) Avoid the appearance of being a participant in any protests or other disruptive behavior. Wearing insignia, carrying signs or joining in chants with protest participants (or counter-protesters) increases the likelihood that a journalist will be perceived as there for a purpose other than to collect information and cover the news. Editors should ensure that they know which of their staff members are there to cover the events so that if trouble should arise, they can immediately identify each staff member as a journalist and not a protester.

3) Bring a cell phone and at least $50 cash. If detained or threatened with arrest, the ability to contact outside help quickly can be important. Have a means for contacting your editor, adviser or an attorney if necessary. Make a plan for all reporters and photographers on the scene to check in periodically with an editor or another newspaper staff member outside of the area who will be available during the event. If arrested, paying a $50 “post and forfeit” fee MAY prompt a quicker release. But be forewarned that in the past, despite police pledges, those who “post and forfeit” are not necessarily released any sooner than those who refused to do so. The “post and forfeit” fee allows one to avoid appearing in court but may also prevent one from contesting the arrest later. It does not involve an admission of guilt.

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. If possible, identify yourself as a journalist to the officer in charge and ask for guidance as to where you can continue your job without interfering with theirs. If you believe police are acting unlawfully or unreasonably in orders given to you, you should do your best to document the names and titles of those involved as well as the names and contact information of other witnesses. If possible, take photos or video of the police misconduct and, as soon as possible, write down what happened. It is generally not a wise idea to disobey a police order on the scene, but you can ask them to reconsider if you make clear that you do not want to interfere with their efforts and will ultimately obey an order given. However, as soon as is practicable, contact an attorney for guidance on how to file a formal complaint.

5) If arrested or detained, act immediately. First, inform the police officers in question that you are a journalist there to cover the events and show them your press credentials. If they disregard your status, encourage that they contact their superior officer or Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey’s office before they take any action against a member of the press. Second, contact your editor or other staff representative and let him or her know what’s happening. Third, if police insist on arresting or detaining you, let them know that you wish to contact your lawyer and do so immediately. Do not agree to plead guilty to any charge without first talking to legal counsel or fully understanding what you are doing.

In conjunction with the Student Press Law Center, D.C. media/criminal law attorney Robert S. Becker has agreed to provide on-the-scene assistance to any student journalist who is arrested or detained covering the protests. Student journalists in need of such assistance or who have questions in advance of their reporting should contact the SPLC at (703) 807-1904.

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