by Frank D. LoMonte
The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocate for the First Amendment rights of the student media, asked Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Monday to investigate the treatment of two college journalists arrested during a weekend roundup at the site of the “Occupy Atlanta” demonstrations and to drop all criminal charges against the journalists.
On the evening of college journalists Alisen Redmond of The Sentinel at Kennesaw State University and Judith Kim of The Signal at Georgia State University as they were covering “Occupy” protests near downtown Atlanta’s Woodruff Park. The two spent about 14 hours in jail each and were issued citations for the offense of “obstruction of traffic” in violation of the Atlanta City Code — even though they were standing on a street that police had closed off to traffic.
The journalists were on assignment for their newspapers, taking photos and shooting video of police arresting protesters. Each identified herself to police as a working journalist. Both students were released from jail on the afternoon of Nov. 6 and given a March 9, 2012, date to appear in court.
In a letter to Mayor Reed, I said police officers’ knowing arrest of working journalists reflects a need for greater police training in the rights of student journalists.
“We respect and appreciate the difficult job that police officers do, and that controlling crowds can at times require spur-of-the-moment safety decisions,” I wrote in the letter. “However, it appears clear from the video and witness accounts of Saturday night’s events that no public-safety justification existed to arrest pedestrians in a hasty and indiscriminate manner. The officers had ample time to make a distinction between a person causing a disturbance and a person peacefully recording police activity as part of a bona fide news organization.”
The arrests of Redmond and Kim mark the latest run-in between police and student journalists assigned to cover “Occupy” protests across the country. On Oct. 29, Middle Tennessee State University student Malina Chavez-Shannon was arrested and her camera damaged, while she was photographing the arrests of “Occupy” demonstrators in Nashville.
The arrests reflect a need for greater understanding of the important role that students play as front-line news-gatherers.
I don't think there is any question that the Atlanta students were singled out for arrest, while the professional videographers standing right alongside them were not, because they look like ‘kids’ to the police. Being arrested and jailed is a traumatic event and it can have a serious ‘chilling’ effect on journalists’ willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to report the news. When a student — or anyone — identifies herself to police as a journalist, police should take a deep breath and inquire further, rather than, as the City of Atlanta police apparently did here, arrest first and sort it out afterward.
I encourage any student who encounters difficulty with police while gathering news to call the Center’s hotline at 703.807.1904 for assistance and referral to local volunteer legal counsel.
More information about the work of the Student Press Law Center is available on its website at www.splc.org.
Mr. LoMonte, an attorney, is executive director of the Student Press Law Center.