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Timothy Karr

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Mayor Bloomberg's First Amendment Problem

Posted: 11/21/11 08:50 AM ET

Since the beginning of his crackdown against the Occupy Wall Street movement, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has gone to great lengths to present himself as a champion of the First Amendment. But the free speech rhetoric coming from City Hall hasn't matched the brutal reality experienced by journalists at the front lines of the protest.

In the two months since the movement began 25 journalists have been arrested covering events across the country. More than half of these arrests have occurred in New York City, including 13 journalist arrests in the last week.

My colleague Josh Stearns, who maintains a running tally of media arrests and harassment, said that the NYPD's early morning raids on Zuccotti Park on November 15 resulted in the "single worst day for journalist attacks and arrests to date."

"From the beginning, I have said that the City had two principal goals," Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement following the raids, "guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors' First Amendment rights."

Regarding the rights of reporters covering the Occupy protests, the Mayor is less clear.

AFP reporter Jennifer Weiss films her own arrest
His police department has worked in coordination with other departments around the country to prevent journalists from covering Occupy evictions. News crews, reporters and photographers have been herded away during police actions in Portland, Oakland and New York City.


Police have kettled others into "Free Speech Zones" -- barricaded and controlled areas where journalists are kept far from the action.

Mayor Bloomberg said the police kept the media at a distance "to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press." But according to the New York Times, one journalist told a police officer "I'm press!" and the officer just responded "Not tonight."

Many journalists who remained on the front lines were arrested, roughed up, tear-gassed or pepper sprayed. New York police put one New York Post journalist in a choke hold; Daily Caller reporter Michelle Fields was hit and forced to the ground; Lucy Kafanov of RT was struck with a baton; and countless others have been shoved and harassed. In October, Kafanov reported that police were using high-powered strobe lights to blind news and cellphone cameras and block people from recording their actions.

On Friday the mayor's office disputed our account of these violent arrests and harassment. His spokesman Stu Loeser tried to dismiss the notion that the police arrested so many or acted inappropriately saying that only five of the journalists arrested actually had NYPD-issued press credentials.

But a great number of journalists working in New York City, including myself, don't bother to submit ourselves to the NYPD's "Kafkaesque" credentialing process. Others don't recognize the NYPD's authority to determine who qualifies as a working journalist and who does not. It's likely the credentialing process itself would not survive a First Amendment challenge.

In any event, one NYPD detective admitted to Wired's Ryan Singel that the department doesn't intend to provide any press passes to journalists wishing to cover the Occupy movement.

All of this point to profound problems with the ways City Hall regards the media. As the former head of a press organization, you'd think Mayor Bloomberg would know better.

Before he again wraps himself in the First Amendment, New York's mayor needs to fully account for the trampling of these rights by his police.

 

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