Rights of Journalists During Protests and Riots

2017 has proven to be a tumultuous year for many people so far, regardless of their political affiliation. People are becoming more and more political and taking to the streets to assert their viewpoints. It can be difficult, especially right now, to know to what extent people’s fundamental Constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly are protected, especially as they are weighed against public safety concerns. Police officers are forced to strike the balance to insert themselves on behalf of public safety while also ensuring that the people’s right to protest is not restricted unconstitutionally.

If you are a journalist and have been arrested and charged with a crime while you were working a protest or other demonstration, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.

Journalists Charged with Felony Rioting Offenses in January 2017

Journalists can find themselves in a quandary. Their first priority is to depict accurately what is occurring, but in doing so, they sometimes find themselves at odds with the law. During the Inauguration protests, for example, several journalists were arrested when the protests became violent. They were charged with felony rioting, and while many of the journalists were able to get the charges dropped, there are still a few who are having a hard time asserting their journalistic privilege because they are not affiliated with a public syndication and are freelance writers.

Journalistic Privilege in Florida

In Florida and throughout the United States, journalists are permitted to a certain journalistic privilege because their occupation is to be the upholders of the First Amendment. If journalists were being arrested for their presence at riots or protests, then there would be a difficulty in accessing truthful and honest news. A journalist not only has the right to gather information in pursuit of a story, but the Constitution and the Florida Supreme Court has upheld this right. However, there are limitations.

Rights of Journalists to Gather the News

During a protest, for example, journalists are permitted to report on the protest, but this does not mean reporters have more rights than others, and are not entirely protected. The right to be at a gathering is still a constitutional gray area, and if a police officer asks a reporter to leave, there is the chance that public safety in that instance will outweigh the journalist’s right to report. Public protests are generally held in public spaces like parks and streets, where reporters are permitted to be, just like protesters. However, that does not preclude the government from determining any reasonable restrictions on the amount of time, place, and the manner in which a protest may occur. They do not need credentials in public forums but it might be a good idea in case the police are involved.

Journalists Who Commit Crimes are Not Automatically Protected By the First Amendment

If reporters commit a crime while reporting, they will not be able to hide behind the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the laws that apply to the public as a whole will also apply to reporters. Usually reporters who are arrested are charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct. Trespassing in Florida is the crime of willfully entering onto property without authorization, a license, or an invitation. Disorderly conduct in Florida occurs when a person commits acts that are against public decency, public morals, and disrupts the peace and quiet of others. Fighting or brawling can also be a crime under disorderly conduct.

Reportersshould be aware of where they are, obey any reasonable and/or legitimate directions or orders from the police, and should not interfere with the police officers’ duties to keep the peace. An annoying reporter would not rise to the level of disorderly conduct. Most important, journalists in Florida have the right to videotape police officers.

If There is Confrontation Between a Police Officer and a Reporter

If a police officer unlawfully interferes with a reporter while he or she is investigating or gathering the news, he or she may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the police officer under federal statute 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 which is an action claiming that a government official deprived the plaintiff of their constitutional and/or civil rights. Winning this type of case, however, may be difficult especially where a police officer can claim that he or she acted in a way to preserve public safety.

Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.