By Sandy K. Johnson
There has been a raft of discomforting attacks on journalists and First Amendment rights recently. For journalists, the best way to fight back is to know their rights and to be smart in challenging situations.
Tips and resources were offered up by Kevin M. Goldberg, media lawyer and National Press Foundation chairman, and John M. Donnelly, a national security reporter for CQ Roll Call who was roughed up at a federal agency. Their suggestions:
*Your newsroom should have a strategy. Journalists should know what to do if they get into a difficult situation. Which editor should they call? Should every physical incident be reported to the police? Is the journalist willing to go to court?
*Clearly identify yourself as a journalist. Keep your credentials clearly visible. Have business cards with you. Dress appropriately, so security or law enforcement doesn’t mistake you for an antagonist. Know your state’s open meeting laws, as well as what’s public property (and what’s not). In general, “If a member of the public can be there, a reporter can too,” Goldberg said.
*Situational awareness. Partner up. Know where the exits are. Remain courteous while explaining your right to be there. Know how far you’re willing to go to get the story. Never pick a fight with a law enforcement officer with a gun.
*If you get detained or arrested. Try to identify witnesses among other journalists or bystanders and get their audio, video and photos as evidence. Authorities cannot confiscate your cell phone, camera or other equipment. Here’s the federal law to back you up: the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. Use encryption to make it more difficult to obtain information from your devices. Keep some cash in your wallet if you are arrested and need to post bond.
*Lawyer up. Big news organizations have in-house counsel or media lawyers on retainer. Smaller organizations and freelancers do not. Several organizations have hotlines to call for legal assistance (see resources section).
*Talk it up. You’ve got a megaphone – use it. Let other journalists know what happened by writing about it. Let other journalists interview you about your experience. Keep the conversation going to protect all Americans’ First Amendment rights.
“It’s not about us,” Donnelly said. “We are there to represent the public. … When we are attacked, the public should care.” Both Goldberg and Donnelly agreed it is critical to educate the public about the fundamental role of the press in a democracy.