Covering protests and demonstrations: Staying safe if your campus is next to be “occupied”

As the Occupy Wall Street movement gathers steam in both New York City and at satellite locations across the country and internationally, some of those covering the event for commercial media have been called out for watching from afar, failing (or refusing) to take the time to talk with the protesters and hear their message. A number of student media organizations, on the other hand, have jumped in with both feet to interview participants — who are in many cases classmates — protesting issues such as the record unemployment rate among young workers, soaring tuition and sky-high student debt, which are of keen interest to their readers back home.

Unfortunately, the protests have not been without conflict as police have arrested hundreds, including some journalists, at locations across the country. While groups such as the ACLU have started to provide protesters with valuable information about their rights in such situations, student journalists — whose goal is to gather and convey accurate and timely information — often have different concerns.

The Student Press Law Center offers the following advice for college student media members planning to cover these protests, or any protests, that could help them avoid police problems:

1) Bring credentials. Every student journalist covering the event should have something that clearly identifies him or her as a member of the press. A personalized credential from your local, county or state police department may be the best identification. If that isn’t available or cannot be obtained in time for the event, an official credential document issued by the publication, identifying the journalist by name and photo as a member of the staff, may be the next best alternative.

2) Avoid the appearance of being a participant in the protests. Wearing insignias, 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. It might be wise to 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 protest area who will be on-call. Although you won’t want to pay any “post and forfeit” fee unless you are willing to admit to the offense you’ve been accused of (see point 5 below), if there comes a point where you choose to pay for your release, you’ll need cash. But be forewarned that despite police pledges, those who “post and forfeit” are not necessarily released any sooner than those who choose to contest the charges against them.

4) Obey all police orders. If ordered by police 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, 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 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 (or “no contest” or pay a “post and forfeit fee”) to any charge without first talking to legal counsel or fully understanding what you are doing. If you believe you are not guilty, you preserve all of your legal rights only by pleading “not guilty.”

6) Bear witness. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to — and if the police are not — video, still photos or audio of the the event can prove an invaluable ally in making your case. Journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and her crew confirmed this  just a few days ago, when they were awarded a $100,000 settlement after being roughed up and detained by police — much of it caught on video — while covering the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. If you are being arrested by police or otherwise prevented from doing your job as a journalist, ask that those around you record the event and send their material to your newsroom as soon as possible.

Any student journalists that have questions in advance of their protest coverage should contact the Student Press Law Center for assistance at (703) 807-1904.