Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category

SPJ Board Meeting Recap

The SPJ spring board meeting was this past Sat., April 18 in Indianapolis. Each meeting is streamed live, but in case you missed it or don’t want to sit through the 6+ hour recording, here are the highlights:

  • The board approved the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. To executive director Joe Skeel’s credit, SPJ has a sizable surplus. We are operating in the black and expect to continue to do so with sufficient reserves set aside for a rainy day and to spend on worthy projects.
  • The slate of candidates for the next SPJ board cycle was announced. New candidates have until about a week before EIJ15 to announce their candidacy. So far, there are only two contested elections (secretary-treasurer and at-large director). Interested candidates should contact Sonny Albarado, past president of SPJ and this year’s nominations chair, or click here for more info.
  • We are seeking nominations to replace regional director Tony Hernandez (Region 12). He moved out of the region, and we are looking for a replacement, effective June 1. We also thanked Tony for his service to SPJ.
  • SDX President Robert Leger gave an update on the SDX Foundation, including the transition of moving programming responsibilities and funding from SPJ back to SDX.
  • The Ethics Committee, led by Andrew Seaman, is beginning the posting of additional materials to supplement the revised SPJ Code of Ethics that was approved by the delegates at EIJ14. In addition, the Code has been translated into five languages (French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Arabic). Those versions are being proofread and, once approved, they’ll be posted to
  • The board discussed how to handle the proposed Marriage & Conscience Act now in committee in Louisiana. The board will send a letter to the Louisiana legislature citing its concern about the bill which addresses religious and moral beliefs, unlike other religious freedom legislation being considered in other states. Our hope is that the bill will be defeated. If not, SPJ will have to reconsider hosting its 2016 spring board meeting, and SPJ and its partner RTDNA will have to discuss the implications for EIJ16, both scheduled for New Orleans next year. President-elect Paul Fletcher and secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh will work on the letter to the legislature and share it with the board for input by the end of this month. We will also share it with RTDNA, and they will vote on whether or not they wish to sign the letter as well.
  • The SPJ board gave staff the go-ahead to expand its criteria for the selection of convention cities.
  • I announced two new diversity initiatives: (1) Adding members of other journalism organizations (e.g., AAJA, NAJA, NLGJA, NABJ, NAHJ, etc.) to the Diversity Committee, led by April Bethea, as a pilot project. If this is successful, we hope to expand this to include members of these organizations on other committees to help expand the diversity within our organization. (2) Creating a partnership between the Diversity Committee and Membership Committee to develop diversity-related resources for our members. We’ll first create a list of programming ideas, gathering successful program information from SPJ chapters and regions. We’ll expand to include other resources such as how to identify local chapters of other organizations that we could partner with, and link to other diversity-related resources, such as the NLGJA style guide and the diversity style guide project that is supported by the SDX Foundation.
  • I announced the Membership Committee’s upcoming promotion, #spj4all, a one-day campaign to reiterate our organization’s acceptance of journalists from all backgrounds. The committee, led by Robyn Sekula, will share details soon.
  • Four new chapters were added to SPJ ranks.
  • Secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh announced SPJ’s new career center, a dramatically improved version of our job bank which includes links to additional resources.
  • At the request of FOI chair and immediate past president Dave Cuillier, the SPJ board approved a $30,000 transfer from our fiscal year end reserves to the Advocacy Fund. The board discussed how money would be spent and what the approval process might be.
  • Regional director Tom Johnson received the board’s endorsement of his “It’s the People’s Data” project.
  • At-large director Bill McCloskey presented a new SPJ Convention Voting Transparency Policy, developed by the By-laws Committee. The policy was approved.
  • Jennifer Royer, communications strategist, and I discussed the proposed guidelines for handling the deaths of prominent journalists and international matters. Each will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and will rely on good judgment.
  • In Becky Tallent’s absence, an update about the release of the Journalism Education Committee’s new book, “Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism,” was shared in the board packet and via email.
  • President-elect Paul Fletcher informed the board that 41% of our membership is not affiliated with a chapter, meaning they are not represented by delegates at convention. At my request, Paul has formed a task force to explore the ramifications of this problem and to make recommendations for correcting it.
  • The SPJ board accepted the Executive Committee’s recommendations for 9 of the 10 overall SPJ awards, as outlined in the board packet. Changes will be effective in 2016.
  • The SPJ board discussed the selection of future Wells Key winners. The Executive Committee recommended that the selection group be expanded from the SPJ officers to the full Executive Committee. This recommendation was approved with two amendments – providing the full board with a list of nominees for the current year and the previous nine years (info. to be kept confidential and not shared outside the board), and after the Wells Key is awarded, the Executive Committee will explain to the board why that candidate was selected. These changes will also be effective 2016.
  • We took a photo of the full board for historical purposes and to kick off the #spj4all campaign. #spjlove

The board meeting was packed full of agenda items, and we had good, thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate about these topics and others. In addition, I thanked the board, volunteers and staff for their hard work and continued commitment to SPJ. We’ve accomplished a lot in the seven months I’ve been president, but there is much more to do.

If you have any questions about the meeting, or you’d like to volunteer, I welcome your comments and ideas. You can reach me via email at

Thank you,

Dana Neuts
SPJ President


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Paul Fletcher: Execution process shouldn’t be secret

SPJ president-elect Paul Fletcher speaks out on "execution secrecy" in Virginia.

SPJ president-elect Paul Fletcher

SPJ president-elect Paul Fletcher has been following the Virginia legislature as it debates the merits of making the execution process more secretive in that state. Senate Bill 1393 was passed by the Senate, and is now being considered by the House of Delegates. Fletcher offers this editorial, originally posted on Virginia Lawyers Weekly where he is the publisher and editor-in-chief:

The Virginia House of Delegates will have the chance to cure a mistake by the Senate: The House can and should reject a bill that would shroud the Virginia execution process in secrecy and darkness.

Senate Bill 1393, filed by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, allows the state Department of Corrections to contract with any “external entity” to compound the drugs used for execution by lethal injection.

But a provision of this bill exempts the contracting process, the identity of any providers and the drug components used for execution from the Freedom of Information Act.

Saslaw told the Senate Courts of Justice Committee last week that the bill was prompted by difficulty getting the lethal drugs from overseas manufacturers. Virginia and other states that execute by lethal injection have faced shortages of the compounds needed to complete the process.

And manufacturers, which have been the targets of protests and pressure from anti-death penalty groups, apparently want the black-out. A Department of Corrections spokeswoman told The Washington Post that the measure would give drug manufacturers “security” from “harassment, threats or danger.”

Seems like there are less extreme ways to protect companies from protests than turning out the lights on the whole process.

If there is any solace to be taken, Saslaw’s original bill was worse – the whole process would have been secret. A condemned person, or his or her family, could not find out the details about the state-imposed death.  But an amendment took out wording that would have exempted from FOIA all information relating to the execution process, including details of the buildings used during an execution and all records about the equipment used.

SB 1393 squeaked through Senate Courts by a 7-6 vote and passed the full Senate 23-14. After crossover day Feb. 11, it is in the hands of the House.

This isn’t the first attempt to take lethal injection execution out of public view: A similar measure was introduced in the Ohio legislature, and worked its way to passage in December, despite protests about the secrecy of the process. The new law now is being challenged in federal court in that state.

Although he is a Catholic opposed to the death penalty, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is backing SB 1393. Support has been bipartisan.

Richmond lawyer Craig Merritt testified at the Senate Courts meeting on behalf of the Virginia Press Association, and he has it right: “What this is doing, is placing it on very separate footing from pretty much anything else the Commonwealth or its subdivisions procure.”

Merritt added, “It puts a blanket over how we get this, what we spend for it, who is providing it. That is a serious concern when it comes to transparency.”

The state has no more grave or solemn duty than ending the life of someone for crimes so heinous that they warrant the death penalty. The execution process should not be fogged by secrecy.

We urge members of the House of the Delegates to reject this bill.


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Highlights thru Dec. 4, 2014

Hello, all. It has only been a few weeks since I posted the last update, but we’ve accomplished so much that it is almost baffling. I am so proud of SPJ staff and volunteers for their hard work and dedication to the cause. Here are some of the projects we’ve been involved in over the last few weeks (you might want to pull up a chair – there is a lot of good stuff here!):

  • Community elections for SPJ Digital & Freelance were launched. Details here.
  • SPJ Georgia attended two separate hearings of Atlanta journalists who were arrested last week during the Ferguson protest. Charges have been dropped in both cases. Reps from SPJ Georgia plan to attend a roundtable discussion tomorrow with Atlanta PD. Thanks to SPJ Georgia for staying on top of this issue and keeping us informed!
  • We sent a letter to the EPA protesting the limitations put on scientists, preventing them from speaking directly with the media:
  • Alex Veeneman was named our first community coordinator to help me manage the workload. Thank you, Alex, for stepping up! Alex is the current leader of SPJ Digital, so he knows first hand the work involved in setting up a community and keeping it going.
  • The Ethics and International Committees are working together to get the Code of Ethics translated into other languages.
  • I had a call with national board members Patti Newberry, Sue Kopen Katcef, Brett Hall and Jordan Gass Poore last week to discuss student internships and the formation of a student-based community. Brett and Jordan agreed to lead the community and Patti & Sue agreed to serve as advisors. I need to get some input from our legal counsel since some of the internship issues we are discussing involve labor laws.
  • I have selected SPJ’s EIJ15 programming committee volunteer – Athima Chansanchai (“Tima”) from the W. Washington Pro chapter. Tima was a diversity fellow this year and has helped with programming for the AAJA national convention several years ago. She will oversee the programming subcommittee that includes Paul Fletcher, Lynn Walsh and Patti Newberry.
  • Amy Tardif of RTDNA scheduled a pre-planning EIJ15 programming conference call for early January to discuss EIJ14 successes, areas for improvement and goals for EIJ15. Scott Leadingham, director of education, is scheduling his first EIJ15 planning call before the holidays.
  • We updated our statement speaking against Ohio legislation HB663, the secret executions bill, which went before the Ohio Senate Tuesday and today. Past president Kevin Smith attended on SPJ’s behalf.
  • SPJ Freelance Chair Michael Fitzgerald and I spoke regarding the Freelance Community to discuss the election process.
  • SPJ hosted a Digital Tools webinar taught by Kim Bui.
  • SPJ has made an agreement to provide services to another journalism organization and has put a call out to hire a part-time communications person to help with that work.
  • SDX did a big fundraising push this week, including a mailing and an email campaign. SPJ members are encouraged to set up monthly donations or make a one-time donation to help fund SDX’s efforts. Donate here.
  • New member benefits are forthcoming. Linda Hall has been working hard to develop new relationships and acquire new benefits for our members. SPJ HQ will announce those new benefits soon, so stay tuned!
  • We are trying to finalize all of the spring conferences. Some dates and locations are still tentative. The info. that is known can be found here.
  • Joe hired a replacement for the part-time membership retention coordinator. We are eager to welcome him aboard!
  • Tara Puckey was promoted to membership strategist to help further SPJ’s long-term mission and to address our changing membership needs. Linda Hall will continue to provide our members with the great service she always has. Congrats to Tara for this well-deserved promotion!
  • FOIA chair Dave Cuillier issued a statement urging the U.S. Senate to pass the FOIA Improvement Act. SPJ tweeted this tonight. Senator Jay Rockefeller has put a hold on the bill.
  • Butler Cain, J Ed committee chair, held a meeting with his committee yesterday to discuss providing resources, guidance and a list of experts to help support high school journalists and educators.
  • Robyn Sekula, membership chair, is accepting nominations for the December Volunteer of the Month (deadline is tomorrow) and finalizing the committee’s strategic plan for the year.
  • Carlos Restrepo and the International Journalism Community are also finalizing their goals for the year and selecting their assignments and projects. We have an enthusiastic bunch here – I am excited to see them move forward!
  • Sarah Bauer, contest advisory group coordinator and co-chair of the Awards & Honors committee, is in the process of matching up SPJ contest swap partners across the country. This is a thankless task, but an important one. Thanks to Sarah for taking the lead!

Thanks to everyone within SPJ and SDX – staff, leaders and volunteers – who have contributed in some way to our success and mission. It truly takes a village, and we’ve got some big goals to tackle this year. I appreciate your enthusiasm and support.

As always, if I left something out, it was unintentional. My head is spinning with all of the activity, but if I omitted something, let me know, and I’ll update this post.

Til next time,

Dana Neuts
SPJ President



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Highlights thru Oct. 22

It’s been three weeks since my last post, and a lot has happened in SPJ and the journalism world in that short time. Here are a few highlights:

Earlier this week, we lost journalism legend Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post. He inspired an entire generation of journalists and took editing to a new level. He will be missed. Here is a nice piece in The Washington Post remembering his contributions.

SPJ Georgia and regional director Michael Koretzky fought for and supported George Chidi, a freelance journalist in Georgia, after Thomas Owens, a candidate for DeKalb County commissioner, sought a temporary protective order and filed an application for a warrant on stalking charges against the journalist. The protective order and application were both dismissed, upholding the First Amendment and helping to protect Chidi’s right to do his job. Thanks to SPJ Georgia and Koretzky for fighting on Chidi’s behalf.

SPJ, the Student Press Law Center and 18 other organizations sent a letter to education leaders to renounce the actions of the Neshaminy School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for punishing student journalists and their adviser for refusing to use the term “redskins” in the Playwickian, a school publication. Principal Rob McGee suspended the journalism adviser for two days without pay, removed the Playwickian editor from her position for a month, and the newspaper was fined $1,200, the cost of the June edition which omitted the Native American mascot name.

In other SPJ news:

The membership committee, led by Robyn Sekula, is working on a master plan to outline its goals and strategies for the coming year. The committee also named its October Volunteer of the Month – Lee Anne Peck of the University of Northern Colorado. Congratulations, Lee Anne!

The SPJ international journalism community, led by Carlos Restrepo, is also working on a master plan, breaking its work into three primary goals and subcommittees. More on that once the community has had time to review and comment on it.

The journalism education committee is publishing a book in January titled “Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism.” The project is the result of three years of research and a survey of nearly 250 Journalism Education Association members in 47 states.

The ethics committee continues to be busy, educating others on the revised Code of Ethics, preparing supplemental materials for and speaking on ethical issues. Check out this post from ethics chair Andrew Seaman on the ethical reporting of Ebola.

The awards and honors committee, led by Andy Schotz, has been working with Abbi Martzall, SPJ’s awards coordinator, to review our awards criteria and make recommendations for changes. Sarah Bauer, the committee’s co-chair, is coordinating the swaps for local and regional SPJ chapter contests. If she hasn’t already, she’ll be contacting awards coordinators in the near future to plan for swaps for next year’s contest season.

The Generation J committee, led by Claudia Amezcua, has been working with her committee on its plan for the year and will be working with secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh and past president John Ensslin on the recommendations made by the futures task force in June. Two goals for Gen J this year are to broaden the committee’s mission to include journalists at all career levels and to partner with other committees to offer training opportunities via joint Google hangouts.

Led by SPJ past president David Cuillier, the FOI committee has been hard at work, developing a blogging and tweeting strategy for the committee to handling breaking FOI news and to be proactive on FOI issues. For FOI resources, check out the FOI page on

At SPJ headquarters, staff has been busy on many fronts, including planning for EIJ15 (yes, already!), sending out new ethics posters and bookmarks, working on affinity partnerships to offer additional benefits to our members, and developing communications strategies for how and when to communicate with the public and other media organizations.

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Phoenix on behalf of SPJ where I talked to ASU journalism students about how to get started freelancing and get those first critical clips. I also met with SDX president Robert Leger and had a fun evening with SPJ members of the Valley of the Sun Pro chapter where we celebrated some local journalism and PR successes and talked about what’s next for SPJ in the year ahead. I’ve also been working with communications staff at HQ to create an outreach plan to help promote our communities. Up next: a visit to Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, finding a volunteer to help support our communities, and planning our January executive committee meeting.

I am sure I have omitted a letter SPJ signed onto or committee projects and, if so, I apologize. The omission is unintentional, but email me so I can include it next time. As always, thanks for your support of SPJ. If you have questions, concerns or ideas, you can email me at SPJDANA @ GMAIL.COM.

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Cowboy Boots, Convos and the Code of Ethics

SPJ votes

SPJ delegates vote during the closing business session at EIJ14. Photo by Jeff Cutler.

I’m just returning home from a whirlwind trip to Nashville for the 2014 Excellence in Journalism conference, held in partnership with RTDNA. With more than 900 attendees in town to participate, there was a lot of fun to be had – but much serious business to be conducted as well.

From the CNN-sponsored kickoff at Wildhorse Saloon where we showed off our cowboy boots through the Sunday morning board meetings of SPJ and RTDNA, EIJ14 was action packed. In addition to programs, business meetings, super sessions and socials, SPJ highlights include:

–        The passage of a revised Code of Ethics, the first update since 1996, was one of the weekend’s biggest accomplishments. Passionately and sometimes heatedly discussed during an ethics town hall session and the closing business session, Ethics Committee members, interested SPJ members and chapter delegates worked together to hammer out details, making additional revisions, line edits and suggestions to ultimately come up with a document satisfactory to the majority of delegates. The new Code is a collaborative effort of those volunteers and the hundreds of folks who commented on the Code over the course of the last year.

The Code will never satisfy everyone, nor will it address every ethical issue we might be faced with. Rather it is a collective body of work that SPJ can be proud of. To keep the Code relevant and to provide guidance to those using or teaching the Code, the Ethics Committee will work on providing notes, position papers, links and other supplemental materials available online. Under the leadership of new committee chairman Andrew Seaman, the committee is already working on collecting and preparing those materials. This aggregation will be an ongoing process, and the committee will seek suggestions and input from SPJ’s 7,500+ members and anyone else who’d like to offer feedback. Click here to share your input with the committee.

–        Approval of an endowed “Forever Fund” to support SPJ’s advocacy efforts. Nicknamed by immediate past president Dave Cuillier the ‘Legal Offense Fund,’ this fund will initially be funded via the Legal Defense Fund. As our new FOI chair, Cuillier will lead the charge for SPJ advocacy and fundraising and creating an endowed fund. For more information on how this fund will work and how the money will be used, contact Dave Cuillier.

–        Hosting of a leadership summit with a dozen or so journalism groups including ACES, UNITY, NAHJ, NABJ, ONA, to name a few. Leaders of these organizations met at EIJ to discuss common challenges and synergies and how they can best utilize the strengths of individual member organizations as well as the group collectively. It was an inspiring meeting with a lot of positive discussion and suggestions for moving forward to better support journalists and journalism.

–        The proposal to change the name Society of Professional Journalists to Society for Professional Journalism was ultimately rejected by the delegates. Though the name change didn’t pass, it stimulated a good conversation about the future of SPJ and how we can remain relevant. A Futures Task Force was formed earlier this year by past president John Ensslin, and the task force submitted recommendations to the Executive Committee in June and to the full board last week. Some of the suggestions are already being implemented, and others are being fleshed out for viability, planning and implementation. Stay tuned for more on that!

–        Programs, super sessions and awards, oh my! You can’t talk about EIJ without talking about the great programming, including sessions featuring Michele Norris, SPJ’s newest fellow, Kara Swisher, lessons from Ferguson, narrative storytelling, freelance foul-ups, pushing for parity and more. In addition, EIJ14 held a number of awards ceremonies and honored individual journalists, media organizations, chapters and SPJ leaders. For highlights, visit the EIJ News site.

In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll write more about these topics. In the meantime, visit to stay up-to-day on Society news, watch your inbox for the weekly edition of Leads, and follow SPJ on social media (see’s home page for links). You can also contact me anytime with questions, concerns and ideas. My inbox is always open. Let me know how I can help.

~ Dana Neuts, SPJ President, 2014-2015


(Thanks to Jeff Cutler for letting me use this photo taken during the closing business session on Sept. 6, 2014.)


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On “fundamental” rights

During a local SPJ discussion about legislation affecting Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act in March, state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) told the gathered journalists that FOI is not a right but a privilege.

Members of the audience objected to Williams’ characterization of FOI laws as a privilege. One young journalist said it disturbed her to hear freedom of information described as a privilege, “when it’s a tool that protects a variety of rights.”

But it seems Williams may have just been presaging the retrograde thinking evident in Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McBurney v. Young, a case that challenged a provision of Virginia’s open-records law that limits access to citizens of that state.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous court, declared Virginia’s citizens-only restriction constitutional. Much of the opinion unfortunately focused on the commercial uses of public data, but it’s the section on the history of public records that offends open-government sensibilities.

Justice Alito and the court show skilled reasoning in noting that, although Virginia’s public-records law denies access to nonresidents, it does allow nonresidents access to its courts and other data in a way that provided most of the documents that had been sought by the two non-Virginian petitioners, Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert.

But when Justice Alito’s opinion veers into a peevish recounting of the blighted history of public-records jurisprudence, he and the court show how out of touch with Americans they are.

Does it really matter that “[m]ost founding-era English cases provided that only those persons who had a personal interest in non-judicial records were permitted to access them,” as Justice Alito wrote? Or that 19th century American cases tracked a similar philosophy?

He could just as easily have noted that American law once considered only white male property owners eligible to vote, and been just as relevant.

It’s alarming that Justice Alito asserts repeatedly that access to public records is not a “fundamental” right and that the country was just fine without FOI laws before the 1960s and will be fine without them in the future

Yes, Justice Alito and friends, the federal FOI law is only 47 years old and similar state laws about as recent. Open-government advocates fought hard-won battles to make local, state and federal governments more transparent to the citizens they serve.

Maybe “the Constitution itself is [not] a Freedom of Information Act,” as you wrote, but your opinion in McBurney gives regressive legislators safe cover to start closing access doors that are now open.

Only a half dozen states, including Arkansas, have public records laws that allow agencies to deny out-of-staters access to state and local documents. Let’s hope the number of states limiting access to residents remains at six after this ruling because the ability of Americans to figure out what is going on in their country – not just their state – will be severely diminished..

Without access to public records from many states, the Columbus Dispatch in 2009 could not have demonstrated that excessive secrecy exists at public universities nationwide because of abuse of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Without access to multiple jurisdictions, the Kansas City Star in 1997 might not have revealed lax safety measures nationwide that allowed college athletes to die.

Without access to a broad range of data, ProPublica’s Robin Fields in 2010 would have been hampered in showing wide disparities nationally in dialysis care.

That is scary, particularly at a time when the world is becoming more open. Americans don’t need more bunkering and secrecy. We are one nation, extremely mobile, and information is more portable and important than ever.

If we want to remain a beacon of freedom and justice, of progressive modernism, of advanced thinking, then we need to stand up against thinking that it’s OK to restrict or inhibit access to our governments, no matter where we live.

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Police erasing evidence: Men in black (and blue)

What is up lately with a few of the men (and women) in blue acting like they are the Men in Black?

SPJ is tracking the outcome of an internal affairs investigation in Memphis where a local photojournalist contends police tried to prevent him from taking photos and video of a local businessman being arrested in a case that started with a parking violation.

See the story here, as reported by Memphis television station ABC24.

I sent a letter to the Memphis Police Director earlier this month expressing our deep concerns over the allegations.

What’s more troubling though is that this isn’t the first instance where police have been accused of erasing photographs or video of officers making an arrest.

In Baltimore, there is a case making its way through the courts involving a citizen who made a similar complaint about police deleting video he took of a police encounter with his friend at near a race track in 2010.

The U.S. Justice Department last month intervened in a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Baltimore man and stood up for a citizen’s right to record police actions in public places.

“The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place, as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution,” the Justice Department stated“They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our government officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.”

These two incidents are hardly a trend, and in my view, most law enforcement officers are professionals who know better than to destroy images that could be considered private property or perhaps even evidence.

But they remind me of the running gag in “Men in Black,” where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones keep using their flash pen to erase the memory of what an eyewitness has seen.

It’s no laughing matter when a police officer goes beyond simply impounding a camera and takes the extraordinary step of deleting its contents.

Rightly or wrongly, such an action leaves the public with the impression that the officers have something to hide.

We live in a world where so many people have the capability of taking a picture or video with the cell phone in their pocket.

This is good when it comes to breaking news events. For law enforcement, it can also provide valuable evidence when a crime occurs.

We will monitor how the Memphis case turns out. We’ve also offered our help in starting dialogue with police on the First Amendment issues involved.

Whatever comes of  these cases in Baltimore and Memphis, let’s hope this is more an aberration than a trend.

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A Valentine for journalism – ‘This I Know’

Our SPJ colleagues in Colorado have produced a video that I’d like to bring to your attention.

It’s a 60-second valentine to the power of journalism called “This I Know.”

The video was born out of the frustration many of us felt after coming so tantalizing close to passage of a national Shield Law for journalists in late 2010.

But then came Wikileaks and the bipartisan support we had won came unglued. At the end of that debate you might have thought that the whole point of the Shield law was to deal with Julian Assange.

Lost in that debate was the simple fact of the people whom a Shield Law was meant to protect, hard-working journalists whose work shines a light on those dark or unnoticed corners of society. It’s work that vital to the health of a democracy.

So last spring, a group of volunteers set out to remind people of the real beneficiaries of a Shield Law – not just the journalists who produce this valuable work – but the readers, viewers and listeners who depend upon it.

To drive home this point, we assembled a cast of mostly non-journalists. They included a lawyer, a hospice director, a public relations professional, a bartender, a gadfly and a law student.

The only journalist in the bunch was a 16-year-old crusading editor of a high school newspaper.

The one common denominator of the group was their appreciation of the work that journalists do.

Under the direction of my SPJ colleague Cynthia Hessin and the camera work of my friend Jerome Ryden, we gathered one Saturday morning in the Denver studio of Rocky Mountain PBS.

They took turns reading lines that began with the refrain, “Because of a journalist…”

“Because of a journalist…I know who used steroids in baseball.”

“Because of a journalist…I know who covered up the Watergate break-in.”

“Because of a journalist…I know about the torture at Abu Ghraib.”

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a slick video. The people speaking these lines are clearly not polished actors or spokespeople.

They are just regular folks who happen to believe that the work we do matters.

That’s why I screened this video on the night I took my oath as SPJ president in New Orleans.

That’s also why I’m asking chapter leaders if they would consider screening this video at the start of their next SPJ event or posting it to their chapter website.

Will any of this move us one bit closer to a national Shield Law? Not likely.

But in these tough times, I think it’s important to remind people of the value journalism has to the people who rely upon us for the work we do.

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Around the Web: Highlights of SPJ activities

Like many in SPJ, I have Google Alerts set to deliver links to any stories that mention the Society of Professional Journalists. Here are a few of the more interesting items I’ve come across lately.

First, kudos to the Hofstra chapter of SPJ for hosting a very timely program called “Journalists and Police: Why can’t we just get along?”

Here’s a link to a story and video on the program in the Long Island Report.

I liked the fact that the program provoked discussion between journalists and a representative of a local law enforcement agency.

In light of the recent series of arrests and detention of journalists covering “Occupy” demonstrations, I believe this kind of dialog will be helpful to preventing such incidents going forward.

I also found this New York Times column by Michael Powell. What was especially troubling was the detail on how New York City police used press credentials to cull reporters and photographers from the crowd, removing them to a distance where they could not see what was happening.

A tip of the fedora also to the Middle Tennessee SPJ chapter, for being part of a successful effort to obtain release of court files and help shine a light on an interesting case that had called attention to international adoptions. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has more on the story.

I find there’s a lot to be thankful for in the efforts that individual SPJ chapters are engaged in.

I’m also thankful for some recent good news. For the first time in a long while, our membership numbers are running ahead of last year’s totals.

It’s too soon to call this a trend, but it’s not too soon to do something about it.

Next week, Membership Chairwoman Holly Edgell is organizing an effort to call lapsed members and try to get them to renew. A similar effort proved helpful last year. We call it the Calling Corps.

Holly could always use a few extra volunteers who would be willing to make about five phone calls in this effort. If you would like to help, please contact Holly this week at

You’ll be making a difference by helping SPJ stay strong so we can continue in the kinds of efforts I’ve highlighted here.


It was with sadness that I read about the recent death of Robert Estabrook, who joined SPJ in May 1939.

Mr. Estabrook was a former publisher and editor of the Lakeville Journal in Connecticut and a former Washington Post editorial page editor. In 2008, he became part of the Connecticut SPJ Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to a story on the chapter website about his remarkable life and career.

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Thoughts on arrests of journalists simply doing their jobs

We’ve had a flurry of incidents lately where SPJ has objected to the unwarranted arrests of journalists at street protests or crime scenes.

-In September, a television photojournalist in Milwaukee was arrested while filming a crime scene from behind a police tape.

-In October, a reporter from an alternative weekly in Nashville was swept up in a wave of several arrests made at an Occupy Nashville demonstration on a public plaza.

-Also in  October, Milwaukee Police arrested a Journal-Sentinel photographer as she took pictures of an officer arresting students who had marched into the streets off the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

-On Nov. 1, a photographer for a Richmond, Va. magazine was arrested at an Occupy demonstration.

-On Nov. 6, police in Atlanta arrested two student journalists who were covering an Occupy Atlanta protest.

-And this week, six journalists were detained at Occupy Wall Street in New York City and two at an Occupy demonstration in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The facts and circumstances of these cases vary, but there is one significant common denominator: All the journalists whom police arrested were trying to do their jobs.

I have some empathy for police who are coping with street demonstrations or public protests. My late brother was was a police sergeant in New Jersey. We talked about his job and mine when I was covering the police beat for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver for 12 years.

Both his experience and mine taught me a respect for police officers and the difficult work they do often under chaotic circumstances.

But reporters also often have to work in chaotic situations, which seemed to be the case in three of the four cases cited here. It’s hard enough covering a street demonstration without the added complication of being subject to arrest.

I’ve covered a few riots, and believe me, they are no fun. I’ve been tear gassed, hit in the shoulder by a fist-sized chunk of ice, and dodged a rock. In one instance, a Denver homicide detective came to my rescue when an angry crowd had formed outside a crime scene.

So while I object to seeing journalists handcuffed and arrested, I understand that in a volatile street protest, police are human and mistakes are made.

And as journalists covering these situations, I think it’s important that we adhere to some common sense guidelines.

First off, stay behind the police tape. Police have a right to create a zone in which they can control access to a crime scene. Respect that space.

What’s so aggravating about the first instance is that the cameraman was filming from the public side of the police tape when he was arrested.

Second, wear your credentials. Make it obvious to anyone who sees you that you are part of the working press.

What’s outrageous about the second Milwaukee arrest is that the photographer very clearly was wearing credentials as well as the kind of camera equipment typically used by a photo-journalist.

A police spokeswoman’s subsequent claim that officers did not realize the photographer was a journalist was incredulous at best.

Likewise, a videotape taken by the Nashville reporter clearly captured him telling officers that he was a journalist. They arrested him anyway.

And finally, don’t blur the distinctions between observer and the observed. I know sometimes we like to take the “fly on the wall” approach and not call attention to ourselves. But a street protest is not that kind of situation.

Would any of these steps have prevented any of these arrests? No, because in all these instances the journalists did what they were supposed to do and got arrested anyway.

But taking these steps helps us bolster our case when we protest the arrest of journalists who are simply doing their jobs.



What do you think about these arrests?
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