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Dozens of Journalists Arrested at Republican National Convention in St. Paul

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Dozens of Journalists Arrested at Republican National Convention in St. Paul

Questions Raised over Preparations and Policies Regarding Media

Dozens of journalists were among the more than 800 people arrested during the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) held in St. Paul and Minneapolis September 1 - 4, prompting questions about whether police and security organizers responded appropriately to allow the news media to do their job while controlling protests.

As Many as 50 Journalists Arrested

The journalists arrested and detained – the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported as many as 50 – included reporters, photographers, and videographers from Twin Cities television stations WCCO and KARE-11, the national MyFox television chain, the Pioneer Press, The Associated Press (AP), several local and national news Web sites and blogs, and student newspapers from the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A list of 47 journalists arrested or detained during the RNC, compiled by the Web site Minnesota Independent, is available at http://minnesotaindependent.com/8190/cataloging-the-journalist-detainees-connected-to-rnc-protests.

Many of those detained, arrested, or given citations were swept up in mass arrests on the first and last days of the convention, when the most active protests occurred around downtown St. Paul and the state capitol building. Several members of an online video law enforcement watchdog collective based in New York City were also detained on August 30 while police executed a search warrant for the St. Paul house in which they were staying.

One of the most high-profile arrests was that of Amy Goodman, host of the radio and television show Democracy Now!, who was arrested September 1 when she approached a line of riot police in downtown St. Paul to request the release of two of the show’s producers who had already been arrested. A video of Goodman’s arrest was YouTube’s most watched video September 1 and 2, according to Boston Phoenix columnist Adam Reilly on October 2.

Several free press advocacy and human rights groups decried the arrests. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a press release on September 5 calling on officials to drop the charges against journalists. In a letter to Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish asked, “What conceivable purpose is achieved by citing [journalists] with criminal charges? Once you knew they were journalists, why did you have to engage [in] silly bureaucratic nonsense?” Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the “arbitrary” arrests of journalists in a September 5 press release that also expressed concern about “disproportionate” use of force by police against protesters.

Local advocates from the Twin Cities Media Alliance, along with national group Free Press, organized a letter writing campaign to demand that the charges against journalists be dropped. The groups gathered more than 50,000 signatures in two days, delivering the letters to the office of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman on September 5. Twin Cities Media Alliance spokesperson Nancy Doyle Brown, speaking at a September 5 press conference, said “The targeting and harassment of journalists that we’ve seen during the RNC sends the message that the Twin Cities don’t value the essential role that journalists play in a democracy. From the pre-convention raids to the ongoing harassment and arrests of journalists, these have been dark days for press freedom in the United States.”

On the other hand, KSTP-TV reported September 12 that a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll of 552 registered Minnesota voters found that 60 percent of the people asked how law enforcement handled the arrests of hundreds of protestors during the RNC responded, “just about right.” Twenty-two percent said police were “too aggressive” and 15 percent said they were “not aggressive enough.” KSTP, one of the few local media organizations to have no journalists arrested during the RNC, broadcast a “rare” editorial September 8, praising police who were “calm and professional and measured when faced with protesters.”

St. Paul Drops Charges Against Journalists

On September 19, Coleman announced that the city would not prosecute journalists who were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for being present at an unlawful assembly during the RNC. Coleman said in a press release that the decision “reflects the values we have in Saint Paul to protect and promote our First Amendment rights to freedom of the press.” The press release also said “the city attorney’s office will use a broad definition and verification to identify journalists.”

St. Paul City Attorney John Choi told the Bulletin that as of November 12, his office had reviewed citations against 42 journalists and had declined to prosecute 34 who were charged only with misdemeanor presence at an unlawful assembly and whose status as journalists was confirmed. The city attorney’s office has worked with the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to identify journalists whose charges could be dropped, and Choi has urged those who qualify to contact his office in order to expedite the handling of their cases.

According to Choi, Deputy City Attorney Therese Skarda was assigned to the cases of journalists whose RNC charges the city would consider dropping. Choi declined to give specific criteria Skarda used for a “broad” definition of “journalist,” saying that defining journalism was “a debate we don’t want to get into.” He said that the definition was “a matter of prosecutorial discretion,” and that Skarda used a “reasonable standard” to determine whether those purported journalists who asked the city to drop their charges qualify under the September 19 policy announcement. Choi said that among the eight cases still pending, some included individuals that his office had asked to provide more information that would demonstrate that they qualify as journalists under the policy. Choi said such information could include “anything that would be helpful” in making that determination, including “citations,” “references,” or information available on the Internet.

If the city agrees to drop the charges, the city attorney’s office sends a “decline of prosecution letter” to the arrested journalist and to the St. Paul Police Department, announcing that the charges have been dropped pursuant to the September 19 policy announcement, while clarifying that the decision not to prosecute the journalist in that particular instance “in no way means that the Saint Paul Police Department acted inappropriately or without probable cause.”

Although city officials’ decision to decline to prosecute members of the media arrested while covering the RNC protests was probably welcome news for many, questions remained about the plans police had in place before the convention, how journalists could have prevented their own arrest, and what led to inconsistent treatment of credentialed and non-credentialed journalists who were arrested.

Forum Addresses ‘What Went Wrong – What Went Right’ at the RNC

A September 22 forum titled “Your Credentials, Please: The Media and Law Enforcement at the RNC – What Went Wrong, What Went Right?” sought to address some of the lingering questions. The event was held at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Memorial Theater and was sponsored by the Silha Center, the Minnesota Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Minnesota Journalism Center, and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. The night’s panel discussion was moderated by Al Tompkins of journalism think tank The Poynter Institute and featured St. Paul Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland, KARE-11 photojournalist Jonathan Malat, St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom, and Pioneer Press reporter Mara Gottfried. Organizers also invited members of the local media, members of the Society of Professional Journalists, and local media attorneys to serve as a pool of experts.

Before beginning the discussion, Tompkins showed video of some of the key protest events of the RNC, some of which was filmed by Malat before he was arrested in a mass arrest on September 4. Tompkins said the goal of the event was to engage in a productive dialogue rather than a “witch hunt.”

According to Tompkins, one issue central to the discussion was the need to have a “serious conversation” about the question “who is a journalist?” Little was offered, however, toward a clear definition. Local media lawyer Mark Anfinson agreed that the “who is a journalist” question “permeates” the problem of journalists being arrested or detained, and he observed that refusing to draw a line around who is and is not a journalist “open[s] a door with a dark alley behind it.” Anfinson declined, however, to suggest where that line should be drawn.

According to Bostrom, St. Paul police and the other law enforcement agencies involved in convention planning did not anticipate the sheer number of people on the scene who claimed to be media. He pointed out that St. Paul police do not issue formal media credentials, but that officers were trained that “the media has a story to tell and they have a right to tell it.”

Mulholland said the mayor’s office had been determined to assure that members of the media had “access and the information they need to tell a story,” adding, “Having watched hours of footage, I’d be hard-pressed to think we didn’t give great access.” However, when it came to whether law enforcement should treat all journalists – from reporters for mainstream media to independent bloggers – as equals at the scene of a protest, Mulholland said “I don’t know who the journalist is … I think our approach was probably to treat everyone the same.”

According to Anfinson, when police issue a “lawful order” telling a crowd to disperse, such as was done during the September 1 and September 4 protests, journalists risk arrest if they do not obey the order, just like everyone else, regardless of whether they have media credentials of any kind. “It’s hard to see where the police violated rights as opposed to acting without a lot of tact or wisdom,” Anfinson said. Bostrom said that officers have “discretion” to decide whether members of the media are arrested. However, he observed that “If [officers] were to release someone who was a criminal hiding behind a media credential, they have to be accountable for that.”

Discussion also focused on the fact that treatment of journalists who were arrested and those who were not apparently varied considerably. According to AP Minnesota Bureau Chief David Pyle, four AP journalists were arrested or “roughed up” during various RNC protests, including photographers Matt Rourke and Evan Vucci. Pyle said Vucci was “picked up and slammed to the ground” by an officer while in the midst of a protest crowd on September 1, but when he showed his press credentials, which included those issued by the RNC, he was released on the spot. Rourke, who also had press credentials issued by the RNC, was rounded up in the same crowd, but was placed under arrest, had his equipment confiscated, and was held until 2:30 a.m. the following day before he was charged and released.

Minnesota Daily assistant photo editor Stephen Maturen, in an account he gave to the National Press Photographers Association Web site, said that on the evening of September 4 he was pepper sprayed in the face after asking an officer how to leave the scene of the protest, which had turned dangerous. Shortly thereafter, Maturen said, he was arrested, placed in riot handcuffs, and his equipment was confiscated. While he was sitting on a curb awaiting processing with other arrestees, Maturen said, a former colleague who was working with WCCO and who was not arrested recognized him and encouraged St. Paul Police Public Information Director Tom Walsh to have him released. “About a minute later my zip ties were cut and my [memory] cards and cameras were in hand,” Maturen said. His account is available at http://www.nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2008/09/maturen.html.

Malat said that when he was caught up in the mass arrest on the evening of September 4, Sheriff Fletcher arrived while people were being processed, directing that journalists with credentials issued by the RNC, such as Malat, be separated from other arrestees. Freelance reporter Brian Madigan said he was caught up in the same arrest but was not cited and released like other journalists, adding that while Malat was able to collect his equipment in time for the 10 p.m. KARE-11 news that night, it took several days for Madigan to have his materials returned. Madigan did not specify what materials were confiscated.

Another question raised at the forum was over a pre-convention arrangement between some media organizations and police to embed journalists with “mobile field forces.” According to a September 26 article by David Brauer at MinnPost.com, reporters from local media, including WCCO, the Pioneer Press, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, proposed the idea of reporter ride-alongs to police organizers during the convention’s planning stages. Brauer reported that eventually the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press, WCCO, KSTP-TV, Fox9, and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) agreed to sign waivers in which police promised embedded reporters would not be subject to arrest following orders to disperse in exchange for a promise from media organizations that they would hold any reporting on “police strategy” until after the convention ended. According to Brauer, Star Tribune reporter David Chanen said police also told embedded reporters, “We’re not your babysitters; we’re not looking out for your welfare, you’re on your own.”

There was some disagreement at the forum over whether the embedding opportunity was extended fairly. Brown, of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, alleged that embedded journalists were selected by the police. “I imagine that [police] had their own criteria – maybe subjective, maybe not – of what journalists they felt would be appropriate, or acceptable,” Brown said, asking why the program was kept a secret. Gottfried, who was one of the embedded reporters, responded that she did not believe the program was kept secret.

According to Brauer’s story, Walsh said he sent an e-mail to an 800-person list directing any journalist who was interested in embedding with police to attend a pre-convention meeting. Reports from local journalists conflicted over whether the program was ever mentioned in a meeting or e-mail. Brauer wrote that the “bottom line” appeared to be that “major-media journalists who were smart enough to ask got in, but Walsh did some outreach among direct competitors. However, greener or less-connected media likely never knew a ‘stay out of jail free’ card was available.”

At the forum, KARE-11 News Director Tom Lindner said he turned down embedding a reporter because of the requirement to hold stories until after the convention, which he called “cockamamie.” Quoted in Brauer’s story, Lindner said, “If we had truly witnessed, God forbid, someone severely injured or killed Monday, we’re supposed to hold that until Friday? Our job is to release the news, not hold news.”

But Chanen said at the forum that under his embedding agreement he could opt out at any time after he informed the commanding officer that he was doing so. According to Brauer, Chanen said that if he had exercised that option “any behind-the-scenes tactical insight up to then would’ve been off limits … [but] he could use everything he saw on the street.”

According to Brauer’s September 26 article, embedding reporters with police during the RNC raised practical and ethical questions for the news organizations that participated, such as whether it was a particularly effective way to cover the protests, and whether the news organizations were transparent enough with readers and viewers about the special arrangement.

WCCO News Director Scott Libin told Brauer that he was not concerned that embedding limited his station’s ability to cover the demonstrations and protests because he had several other teams covering them at the same time. If events had turned especially violent or included police misconduct, other reporters or videographers who were not under an embargo could have gone to the scene and reported. Libin also said he would have considered breaking the agreement to hold reporting in an extreme circumstance.

Officials from MPR and the Pioneer Press both said that because they embedded reporters with police only on Thursday, September 4, the last day of the convention, they were not particularly concerned about holding reporting from their embedded reporters until the next day, after the convention had concluded.

Brauer said the media organizations that embedded reporters were not transparent enough about the arrangement, and that “disclosure was a problem for privileged organizations.” Chanen’s September 5 Star Tribune story noted that he and photographer Richard Sennott were “embedded” with the police, but it did not explain what the term meant. WCCO also used the term in a report without explaining the arrangement. Brauer cited a September 6 “roundup” story about police and protesters in the Pioneer Press that included some of Gottfried’s reporting but did not mention the embedding arrangement, and said a similar RNC “debrief” report that aired on MPR the day after the convention ended did not explicitly describe the arrangement.

Pre-Convention Raid Questioned

One forum questioner asked Bostrom to address the August 30 pre-convention raid on a St. Paul house where members of the Internet video activist group I-Witness Video was staying. Bostrom refused to comment, only saying that a judge had signed the search warrant that was executed.

According to the Pioneer Press on September 25, I-Witness Video monitors law enforcement during protests and helped exonerate 400 people charged in connection with protest activity at the 2004 RNC in New York. The group films protest activity and uses the footage to verify or disprove police claims about protesters’ conduct.

The Pioneer Press reported that St. Paul police surrounded the house at 951 Iglehart Avenue on the afternoon of August 30, eventually obtaining and executing a search warrant for the house that included “packages and their contents;” guns; ammunition; weapons; hazardous materials; cell phones, computers, pagers and other communication devices; and “the electronic data contained within (those) devices.” The owner of the house, Michael Whalen, and the I-Witness Video group were detained and handcuffed in the back yard for two hours but eventually freed without charges. No property was taken from the house, the Pioneer Press reported.

The Star Tribune reported September 29 that the search warrant affidavits imply that “Whalen supported international terrorism, had boxes of weapons delivered to his home, advocated violence during the [RNC] and fled police in a rented Chevy.” Whalen has denied all those allegations, pointing out that the boxes police searched during the August 30 raid contained literature on veganism and vegetarianism belonging to his housemate, and suggesting that the I-Witness Video group were the real targets of the raid. The Star Tribune reported Oct. 10 that Whalen has served the city of St. Paul with notice that he will file a $250,000 lawsuit.

Several other police raids on August 29 and 30 led by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office targeted three Minneapolis houses where protesters were staying and a protester “convergence space” in St. Paul. Four people were arrested during the raids and charged with conspiracy to commit riot in furtherance of terrorism. According to the AP on August 30, Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota said arresting people on conspiracy charges to pre-empt disruptions is troubling because it stops people from exercising free-speech rights.

Officials Announce Investigations; Media Not a Central Focus

Officials in St. Paul and Minneapolis announced plans to investigate policing during the convention, but neither expects to focus exclusively on media issues. The St. Paul City Council approved an investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andy Luger to study the “interaction” between the community and police from the Saturday before the convention, August 30, to its last day, September 4. The commission’s deadline is December 15 and its report will identify and analyze the public safety plan; examine how the plan was carried out, including the gathering of officers, training, and equipment; and evaluate how the plan was executed before and after the convention. But it will not investigate individual cases of alleged misconduct by police or citizens, the Star Tribune reported October 1. The commission held a public hearing on November 6.

On September 11, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak announced a plan for a series of reviews into the Minneapolis Police Department’s actions in Minneapolis during the RNC, the Star Tribune reported. Several departments will provide the mayor and city council with reports on police operations and training as well as the process used for citations and arrests and their financial impact on the courts. Rybak also suggested that officials develop a model policy for how to work with the media during large crowd events, the Star Tribune reported.

One Journalist Arrested at DNC; Charges Dropped

On October 17, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported that charges would be dropped against an ABC News producer who was arrested and charged with trespassing at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver on August 27.

ABC reported that producer Asa Eslocker was standing on a public sidewalk and filming as senators and donors arrived at a Denver hotel for a meeting, part of a report on links between large donors and party officials, when he was arrested. His arrest was also caught on tape. This was the only widely reported incident of a journalist being arrested at the DNC.

– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

10/14/09