Republican National Convention coverage
Photo by Nick Brooks
Now that the multitude of journalists and photographers who were arrested during the Republican National Convention have been released, they are beginning to tell their stories on the Internet.
And it doesn’t take a lawyer to see they have more than enough basis for a multimillion dollar lawsuit. In fact, the city of St. Paul is already prepared to dish out $10 million, according to a California paralegal blogger.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman insisted that the RNC host committee use some of its private donations to buy police professional liability insurance to cover up to $10 million in damages and unlimited legal costs. It was a first-of-its-kind and, in retrospect, prescient move on Coleman’s part. It’s unlikely judgments will total more than $10 million, so it’s unlikely the city would have to pay anything. But it’s the kind of situation that brings out the lawyers.
But considering at least 800 people were arrested during the protests outside the convention, including more than 40 journalists and photographers, the question now is whether St. Paul will end up dishing out more than $10 million.
There are subsets of the arrested who might sue. Some were mere passersby, some were medics, some were anarchists. Another subset is the journalists, and they can be divided into two categories: mainstream and self-proclaimed.
According to media lawyer Mark Anfison, the success of the lawsuits might boil down to who is a journalist and who is not.
Who is a journalist and who is not? As recently as the last national party conventions that question was easily answered. Today, not so simple. With the advent of bloggers, You Tube and Twitter, the definition is fuzzy.
“Self-proclaiming journalists may have diluted the police’s capacity to distinguish between mainstream and other journalists,” Anfinson said.
Historically, the courts have sometimes sided with mainstream journalists because they were consistent and played by the same rules, Anfinson said.
“Does that same recognition continue to prevail if every Tom, Dick or Sally says ‘I’m a journalist but I don’t necessarily play by the rules?’ ” Anfinson asked. “I don’t think the courts are there yet.”
What Anfison doesn’t understand is that the First Amendment is not just limited to mainstream journalists. It protects any citizen documenting public police activity, whether it be bloggers, Youtubers and your uncle Charley with his new point and shoot digital.
Obviously, if these “self-proclaimed” journalists were breaking the law, which is what I assume Anfison means when he says “play by the rules”, then they have no grounds to sue.
But there have been no accounts of any of these journalists committing acts of vandalism during the protests, as a small percentage of the protesters were doing. Most of the journalists were arrested for unlawful assembly, which is a First Amendment lawsuit in the making.
And that whole confusion about not being able to tell the mainstream journalists apart from the “self-proclaimed” journalist is a weak excuse used by the arresting police.
Nick Brooks, who took the photo at the top of this page, is the latest photojournalist to write about his arrest. He is the latest of several photojournalists who ended up arrested despite showing police legitimate credentials.
There was no confusion. There was just spite for the media. An opportunity to teach them a lesson if they thought they were going to be writing about the ongoing First Amendment violations occurring in St. Paul.
Brooks wrote his account of the arrest in the Downtown Express of Lower Manhattan, took the photo at the top of this page.
The camera exploded in my face and I was trying to figure out exactly what happened, when a group of the black-clad cops ran at me from all directions, trapping me against the wall. Using their sticks, they pushed me to the ground where, with their boots, they pinned me. One cop took his stick and poked me repeatedly in the genitals. Another punched me in the face. The entire time I was yelling “Press! Press! Press!” but it didn’t stop them. They flipped me over, and handcuffed me behind my back so tight that my hands were numb in minutes.
I tasted blood in my mouth, and spit it out.
I kept repeating the word “Press! Press! Press!” over and over. Finally, a Secret Service agent appeared and ripped the credentials from my neck. He took my phone, called my employers and verified that I was, in fact, a professional press photographer. Then he left, leaving me in the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Taken to jail, I again identified myself as credentialed press photographer, but all jail officials did was show me to a cell.
Brooks was released two days later after paying $300 bail. He was charged with unlawful assembly and interfering with the legal process. He found it ironic that vice president candidate Sarah Palin gave a speech the night he was in jail.
Sarah Palin gave a speech, in part, attacking the media. I couldn’t help but recall my treatment and think that, as Republicans were rhetorically bashing the press inside the convention hall, their minions were literally beating the press on the streets outside.