SPLC ADVISORY: Students should be prepared before covering inauguration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Student Press Law Center is advisingstudent journalists who plan to cover events surrounding the PresidentialInauguration to be held January 20 in Washington, D.C., to take severalprecautionary steps to avoid being arrested or detained by police as werestudent reporters and photographers attempting to cover past demonstrations inthe city.

Because of this year’s anticipated history-making crowds, reporters shouldbe prepared and extra-careful. With projections for this crowd ranging from 1.5to 4 million, only 240,000 will have tickets, according to the WashingtonPost. Students should be aware that without tickets or pre-approved presscredentials, many areas will be off-limits. Note, also, that items such as backpacks, thermoses, “packages,” and “large bags” will be prohibited from all Inaugural event sites and locations. (Security policies for credentialed media had not been finalized by press time.) A full list of prohibited items is available at: http://www.inauguration.dc.gov/spectator_info.asp.

The SPLC will offer help to any student journalist that finds himself in asticky situation while covering the event. But beforehand, students should makethe necessary precautions to avoid even stickier situations. The SPLCrecommends:

1) Bring credentials. Every student journalist covering an event shouldhave 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 anygovernment law enforcement agency. Thus a personalized credential from yourlocal, county or state police department is the best identification. If that isnot available or cannot be obtained in time for the event, an officialcredential document identifying the journalist by name and photo as a member oftheir publication staff is a less preferred alternative. Press credentialsfor press areas have to be applied for. The deadline to apply for credentialsthrough the Presidential Inaugural Committee can be found online and must becompleted by Dec. 22.

2) Avoid the appearance of being a participant in any protests or otherdisruptive behavior. Wearing insignia, carrying signs or joining in chants withprotest participants (or counter-protesters) increases the likelihood that ajournalist will be perceived as there for a purpose other than to collectinformation and cover the news. Editors should ensure that they know which oftheir staff members are there to cover the events so that if trouble shouldarise, they can immediately identify each staff member as a journalist and not aprotester. Becker advised for students to be sure not to do anything illegal. Ajournalist is not protected if he goes into an off-limits area for the sake of”news,” said Robert S. Becker, a Washington, D.C., media attorney.

3) Bring a cell phone and at least $50 cash. If detained or threatened witharrest, the ability to contact outside help quickly can be important. Have ameans for contacting your editor, adviser or an attorney if necessary. Make aplan for all reporters and photographers on the scene to check in periodicallywith an editor or another newspaper staff member outside of the area who will beavailable during the event. If arrested, paying a $50 “post and forfeit” fee MAYprompt a quicker release. But be forewarned that in the past, despite policepledges, those who “post and forfeit” are not necessarily released any soonerthan those who refused to do so. The “post and forfeit” fee allows one to avoidappearing in court but may also prevent one from contesting the arrest later. Itdoes not involve an admission of guilt.

4) Obey all police orders. If ordered by police officials to leave an areaor disperse, move outside the crowd and find a place to observe from a safedistance. If possible, identify yourself as a journalist to the officer incharge and ask for guidance as to where you can continue your job withoutinterfering with theirs. If you believe police are acting unlawfully orunreasonably in orders given to you, you should do your best to document thenames and titles of those involved as well as the names and contact informationof other witnesses. If possible, take photos or video of the police misconductand, as soon as possible, write down what happened. It is generally not a wiseidea to disobey a police order on the scene, but you can ask them to reconsiderif you make clear that you do not want to interfere with their efforts and willultimately obey an order given. However, as soon as is practicable, contact anattorney for guidance on how to file a formal complaint.

5) If arrested or detained, act immediately. First, inform the policeofficers in question that you are a journalist there to cover the events andshow them your press credentials. If they disregard your status, encourage thatthey contact their superior officer or the Metropolitan Police DepartmentChief’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 herknow 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 notagree to plead guilty to any charge without first talking to legal counsel orfully understanding what you are doing.

The Student Press Law Center, D.C. has arranged for on-call legalassistance for any student journalist who is arrested or detained covering theevent. Student journalists in need of such assistance or who have questions inadvance of their reporting should contact the SPLC at (703) 807-1904 and leave a message on the line, which will be monitored during Inauguration Day. Alternatively, you can contact the Center at splc@splc.org.