Police Department Issues ‘Special Order’ to Respect Rights of Journalists
Nov. 17, 2017 – A federal judge issued a stinging rebuke to the St. Louis Police Department on Nov. 15 for aggressive tactics officers used during a wave of protests in September and October. The judge barred officers from declaring protests “unlawful” unless there is an imminent threat of violence, and issued restrictions on the use of pepper spray and other chemical agents on nonviolent protesters.
NewsGuild President Bernie called the ruling “an important, positive development in protecting civil liberties,” but insisted that the union would continue to seek additional legal protections for journalists, who were among those arrested and manhandled during the protests.
“We believe there must be a federal law against assaulting, harassing or arresting journalists – not because journalists are privileged characters – but because of the crucial role they play in bringing news to the people,” he said.
NewsGuild member Michael Faulk, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was covering the protests, was among approximately 120 people arrested on Sept. 17, even though his press credentials were clearly visible.
Although he offered no resistance, Faulk was knocked to the ground and pinned by a police officer who put his boot on Faulk’s head. Faulk was then pepper-sprayed in the face, arrested, held in jail for more than 13 hours, and charged with “failure to disperse,” according to Joseph E. Martineau, an attorney for paper. Faulk is still waiting to hear whether he will be charged with a crime.
Scott Olson, a photographer for Getty Images, was also arrested, as were two documentary filmmakers and an independent livestreamer. Five more journalists were arrested while covering protests on Oct. 3.
Outcry, New Police Policy
Following the arrests, there was an outcry from the Post-Dispatch, the Guild and First Amendment organizations, who pressed city officials to implement policies that would allow journalists to cover protests without fear of arrest or violent treatment by police.
In an Oct. 24 letter to Mayor Lyda Krewson, the Guild and 18 other organizations urged her to “include a thorough consideration of the impact of law enforcement actions on freedom of the press,” in investigations of complaints and lawsuits about the police department’s response to protests.
The Post-Dispatch reported on Nov. 17 that the police department had issued a special order reiterating the rights of journalists, which officers will be required to read and acknowledge on a monthly basis.
The order states that members of the media must be provided, at a minimum, the same access others are given, and that scene commanders may use discretion to grant journalists select privileges, provided the officers’ duties and the safety of the public won’t be comprised.
“News media will be given every consideration by Department members so that they may perform their newsgathering function; however, they are not entitled to interfere with an officer’s performance of duty or the safety of citizens,” the city’s new order reads, according to the Post-Dispatch.
“The new policy is a recognition that the police were out of line in their treatment of journalists,” Lunzer said. “We hope there will be real change.”
The Judge’s Ruling
The wave of protests followed the Sept. 15 acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley who was charged with the murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, following a police chase in 2011. Stockley is white.
Journalists were a small minority of those who were pepper sprayed and arrested at the protests. The majority were nonviolent protesters, along with bystanders and passive observers.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry rejected the department policy that left it to the discretion of officers on the scene to declare protests unlawful even if protesters were not engaged in illegal activity.
“This custom or policy permits officers to exercise their discretion in such a manner as to impermissibly curtail citizens’ First Amendment rights… based on nothing more than a subjective determination by an officer that ‘We’re done for the evening,’ or when the content of the speech is deemed objectionable,” she said.
The judge also ruled that police could not use chemical agents against people engaged in nonviolent activity without “probable cause to arrest the person” and without first issuing “clear and unambiguous warnings that the person is subject to arrest” and that “chemical agents will be used if they don’t comply with law enforcement commands.”
In addition to charges that they were overly aggressive, civil rights leaders criticized police officers for chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” while arresting some of the protesters.
The judge’s ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of protesters, including Maleeha Ahmad and Alison Dreith, who said they were pepper-sprayed without warning during demonstrations.