Archive for the ‘Press rights’ Category


Anatomy of a reporter’s arrest in Virginia

Why did Shareblue Media reporter Mike Stark get arrested while covering a parade in Fairfax County, Va.? It depends who you ask and what you see and hear on a video.

A video shows much of what happened, although only parts of the conversation are audible:

What else happened? What does the video not show? What led to this confrontation between Stark and the police in the first place?

Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., the chief of the Fairfax County, Va., police department, explained the arrest on Tuesday in a press conference broadcast through Facebook live.

He said Stark’s profanity, at a family event, triggered the arrest. (Public profanity is illegal in Fairfax County.)

As video of the arrest shows, shortly after Stark says “Fuck this,” an officer raises his hand, as if to signal to another officer to arrest Stark.

The confrontation up to that point seems to center on whether Stark is getting out of the road, as directed by police. You can see Stark argue, but also step back once, then again, reaching a point that seemed to be off the street. But the argument continued, Stark swore and police arrested him.

I summarized more of Roessler’s comments about the arrest here, including the idea that officers didn’t know Stark as a reporter — just a guy in a hooded sweatshirt.

Roessler said he didn’t see anything improper from his officers in carrying out the arrest, but an internal affairs bureau is investigating because force was used in the arrest.

Did the police need two officers to take Stark down to the ground and six to subdue and monitor him while he was on the ground, with multiple officers on top of him? Roessler said Stark was a “passive resister,” not fighting back, but tensing up and not complying.

Stark said in an interview that he was scared he might be hurt when officers forced him into a fence during the arrest. He also said he was trying to put his cellphone in his pocket, putting him in an awkward position, with his arm pinned, after he was tackled, unable to follow police orders.

“This was violent,” he said of the takedown and arrest, “but it wasn’t brutal.”

Stark was charged with disorderly conduct and fleeing from law enforcement, which are misdemeanors. He is free on $3,000 bail and is due in court on Jan. 16.

‘Cat and mouse’ advocacy journalism

Stark (from Fairfax County Police Department)

Stark talked to SPJ by phone on Wednesday to explain his actions, but also express regret for how he handled his encounter with police. Still, he is optimistic that the charges will be dropped.

First, though, he explained the backstory that got him to that point.

Stark doesn’t hide that he is a partisan reporter without formal training, doing advocacy journalism for Shareblue Media, which says it produces “practical, factual content to delegitimize Trump’s presidency, embolden the opposition, and empower the majority of Americans to fight.”

For several weeks, Stark has been following around Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, which is Tuesday.

In September, Stark paid $150 to attend a Gillespie fundraiser. A week later, he went to a town hall meeting and got to ask Gillespie a pointed question.

Gillespie’s campaign caught on and had Starks removed from the next event.

Stark said he realized he would not get an easy chance to confront Gillespie again. Nonetheless, he followed the candidate around, filming himself calling out questions on a few topics he considered important.

Stark said he became more aggressive with his questioning. “I understand that he’s fleeing the Fourth Estate,” he said, “and that kind of disgusts me.”

He’d wait for Gillespie at one door at an event, only to see the candidate elude him at another door. “It has been a long month of cat and mouse,” Stark said.

So, when Stark heard Gillespie would march in a parade in Annandale, Va., he saw an opportunity.

When he saw Gillespie’s van, Stark said, he needled the campaign staff, some of whom he has gotten to know, that Gillespie was ducking him because his politics are embarrassing.

He said he heard someone tell him to get out of the road and order him not to go near Gillespie, or he’ll be arrested.

“I said, OK, then you’ll have to arrest me,” Stark said. “Which probably was a mistake.”

Stark said he was frustrated over repeatedly being denied access to Gillespie for weeks.

Stark conceded that when an officer first confronted him on Saturday, he said something like, “Why did you come over to me like an asshole?” He said he responded to a warning by saying something along the lines of “I’m a fucking reporter and I’m going to do my job.”

An officer can he heard telling him not to curse again. Stark calls out: “Fuck this.”

In retrospect, Stark said, it’s better to work out a problem with the police instead of being rude and confrontational. He’s annoyed that he finally might have had a chance to question Gillespie if he would have exercised more restraint.

Noting other arrests of reporters — such as one in West Virginia while trying to interview then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — Stark said he wants to stand up for press rights. “It seems like a switch has been flicked,” he said. “I want to flick it back.”

Chest-thumping + ignorance = fake legislating?

Indiana state Rep. Jim Lucas has to know that his bill proposing mandatory licenses for journalists isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

He doesn’t even need to read all of the way through the First Amendment to figure it out. About halfway through is enough.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Ah, yes. The relevant freedom.

So, clearly a bill Lucas drafted calling for journalists to be fingerprinted and pay police $75 to get a lifetime journalism license is meaningless rhetoric.

He says he’s steamed about media coverage of his attempt to repeal an Indiana law that requires a permit to carry a handgun, according to a story by the Indianapolis Star.

“If you’re OK licensing my Second Amendment right, what’s wrong with licensing your First Amendment right?” he is quoted as asking.

Lucas can’t pick the constitutional amendments he will follow, ignoring others.

And he isn’t even original in his satire. South Carolina state Rep. Mike Pitts acted out an almost identical attention-seeking charade last year. He called his proposed “responsible journalism registry,” modeled after a concealed weapons permit law, an attempt to stimulate discussion on how the press covers Second Amendment issues, according to a Post and Courier story. Unregistered journalists would be fined.

Journalists could ignore these pranksters, but it’s bad to assume that silliness like this isn’t taken seriously somewhere, so it needs to be addressed. We need to speak up against real and faux attempts to impose arbitrary shackles on constitutionally protected news gathering.

It’s tempting to jab back by calling this #fakelegislating and to suggest that Lucas’s woeful ignorance of the First Amendment would cause him to fail a test for his legislator’s license.

It’s more important, though, to examine the grievance and dissect the motivation.

I encourage Lucas and Pitts to air specific complaints and criticism about journalism they’ve seen. It’s their right to challenge news coverage and present a case if they believe a story is wrong or inaccurate, or if they think a journalist was unethical or ignored context.

I’ll argue for their right to get answers to questions and responses to well-reasoned complaints. That type of accountability is enshrined in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

I have a hunch, though, that logic and debate don’t fit in with their plans for mischief.

Freedom to videotape Maryland’s Legislature

There’s a subtle free-press debate going on in the Maryland General Assembly.

Last month, while sitting in the press area in the Maryland Senate, reporter Bryan P. Sears of The Daily Record, as he has done many times, videotaped a senator’s floor speech. However, as the speech concluded, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. reminded the chamber that videotaping is allowed only if permission is granted.

The press may observe Senate actions and take notes, but may not shoot photos or video unless the Senate president says so.

This is the Senate rule: “Prior permission of the President of the Senate is required before any photographing or televising can take place in the Senate Chamber [or] Lounge.”

The same rule applies in the Maryland House of Delegates chamber: “Prior permission of the House Speaker is required before any photographing or televising can take place in the House Chamber or Lounge.”

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch doesn’t enforce the rule. Journalists may shoot photos or video of proceedings from the designated press area at any time.

Why have a rule if it’s not enforced? That’s a good question.

Miller had not been enforcing the rule before, either, but his warning to Sears/the chamber changed that. Now, journalists must ask Miller’s staff every day for permission to photograph and videotape, on the off chance they might want to do either during that day’s Senate session.

I don’t know of anyone being turned down for permission. So, why have that rule if everyone gets permission, every time?

If you don’t ask for that daily permission, you may not pick up your smartphone and videotape when an interesting, unplanned debate unfolds before you.

A few days after issuing the reminder to the chamber, in announcing that journalists had permission to videotape that day, Miller joked with senators that a video clip of their comments might show up in a campaign ad.

That ignored the fact that the audio of each day’s House and Senate sessions already is broadcast live, then archived. Anyone looking for a soundbite for later use already has a way to get it; whether the press videotapes that day changes nothing.

SPJ objects to these limitations on the press, which have a discriminatory side effect: Observers sitting above in the gallery of the Senate chamber may videotape without prior permission; the press may not.

On Feb. 10, SPJ President Lynn Walsh sent a letter to Miller, Busch and their aides, urging that the rule be stricken for each chamber. SPJ also is asking that a new rule be written clarifying the rights of journalists to fully do their jobs during open sessions of the state Legislature.

Despite the House rule, Busch has not kept journalists from photographing or videotaping without prior permission. But the rule is in place in both chambers, and could be arbitrarily enforced in either, so SPJ sent the letter to Busch, too.

(A footnote: Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a Legislative Transparency Act of 2017. A press release says the proposal “requires that all meetings of the General Assembly be livestreamed, which is done in all but seven states in the nation. The governor’s FY 2018 budget includes $1.2 million to fund the livestreaming.”)

Here’s the SPJ letter:

February 10, 2017

Dear President Miller and Speaker Busch:

We are writing to discuss a rule that limits photography and videotaping by the press in the Maryland Senate and House chambers without prior permission. The rule became recently when President Miller reminded Bryan Sears, a reporter for The Daily Record, as he was videotaping a floor speech in the Senate, that he needed to get permission first.

Perhaps this rule made sense years ago, when videotaping was only done by camera crews, requiring large equipment that might have been a distraction to, or even interfered with, the legislature’s operation.

The media landscape has greatly changed. Now, during chamber sessions, journalists might take notes for a future story in print or on the web, but they also might cover proceedings live through Facebook, Twitter, Periscope and other platforms, especially since the public cannot watch the Legislature’s proceedings through a video broadcast. We are no longer limited to the specialties we used to have.

All that journalists need for multimedia work is a small electronic device, such as a smartphone or a tablet. For videotaping, they hold up the electronic device from their seat and press a button; they don’t interfere and are barely noticed.

We have concerns about applying an outdated rule to a current approach to journalism. It has created discriminatory differentiation, as TV crews daily set up in the chambers and are allowed (even without asking permission each time) to get footage for their reports. Other journalists are not allowed to get the same footage for their publications and websites without permission, which is logistically impossible when news develops on the spot.

The rule also creates an imbalance in which the public, from the gallery, may take pictures or video clips from their seats, but journalists on the floor cannot without prior permission.

President Miller has expressed a concern about legislators knowing they are being taped and that their words might be replayed elsewhere. But the audio of chamber sessions already is broadcast; videotaping by journalists does not change anything, other than matching a face to a voice.

We ask that both chambers drop or amend their rule, and rely on current practice, which works well. Journalists who receive credentials through the Department of General Services should be allowed to remain in the press area of each chamber and do their jobs, involving any platform, as long as it does not interfere with the proceedings. Warnings or limitations should be based on that principle, rather than an outdated rule that hampers their work.

We also ask that a rule clearly enshrining press rights be put in place, so that there is no confusion in the future.

A suggested update to the rule is:
“From the press area, credentialed journalists may take photos or video of proceedings, as long as it does not interfere.”

We look forward to hearing from you on this matter.

Yours truly,

Lynn Walsh
President, Society of Professional Journalists
Investigative executive producer, NBC 7 San Diego

 

*****
Disclosure: Besides serving as SPJ’s Region 2 director, I am a city editor with The Frederick News-Post, which covers the Maryland General Assembly.

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