When police in Ferguson, Mo., roughed up and arrested reporters for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post while they were charging their phones in a McDonald’s last week, it was illegal and outrageous. But perhaps, one could hope, it was an isolated incident, an overzealous cop who made a bad decision amid stressful circumstances.
It was just the beginning, it turns out, of a deliberate strategy to intimidate journalists and citizens alike. The message from authorities? We are in charge, do what we say and don’t think about recording us.
In the week since reporters Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly were released with no explanation and no charges, law enforcement in Ferguson has spit on the First Amendment with abandon. They have fired tear gas at TV crews, shot at reporters with rubber bullets and beanbags and arrested at least nine journalists who had the gall to record what they were doing in this war zone.
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Where did these officers get their training – from Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un? The despicable looting from opportunistic hoodlums, and the heavy-handed police response to even peaceful demonstrations, already made Ferguson streets look more like the Middle East than middle America. Now, journalists doing their jobs are being treated in a wholly un-American way as well.
It started with Lowery and Reilly, who were not interfering with police work in any way. Then, authorities shot tear gas at an Al Jazeera America crew and dismantled their equipment. Three more journalists were arrested Sunday.
Four more were arrested Monday – including Getty photojournalist Scott Olson and Breitbart’s Kerry Pickett. On Tuesday morning, Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux and German reporter Lukas Hermsmeier were still in custody after being apprehended and shot at with beanbags for “failing to disperse.” They were, Intercept’s editor says, returning to their car after a night of reporting.
This is an all-out assault on the First Amendment – and so not just on journalists but on all Americans. It is also, as Vox’s Max Fisher says, a statement. If authorities are willing to stomp on prominent journalists’ rights, Fisher says, “you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don’t have the shield of a press pass.”
President Obama said last week, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs.” Obama, of course, is guilty of doing precisely that in other ways, but his point is still correct. He and his attorney general should ensure it doesn’t happen.
Journalists deserve no special treatment. They and demonstrators should be allowed to exercise their rights if they are doing so peacefully and without interfering with an officer’s ability to do his job.
A repressive government unchecked by a free press is, after all, what the Founders feared most, and why they made it unconstitutional in the very first amendment.