Occupy Wall Street livestreamer Justin Wedes tackled by NYPD

Nine groups, which regularly defend free speech and digital rights, have sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Justice Department to protect the right to record by examining the arrests of people, who have been documenting Occupy protests. The letter carries extra significance because today is World Press Freedom Day and the US recently dropped in press freedom rankings because of the number of journalists arrested in the past months.

Access, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Free Press, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), the New America Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), Reporters Without Borders and Witness all signed on to the letter.

The First Amendment has come under assault on the streets of America. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, police have arrested dozens of journalists and activists simply for attempting to document political protests in public spaces. While individual cases may not fall under the Justice Department’s jurisdiction, the undersigned groups see this suppression of speech as a national problem that deserves your full attention.

The alarming number of arrests is an unfortunate and unwarranted byproduct of otherwise positive changes. A new type of activism is taking hold around the world and here in the U.S.: People with smartphones, cameras and Internet connections have been empowered with the means to report on public events. These developments have also created an urgent need for organizations such as ours to defend this new breed of activists and journalists and protect their right to record…

NPPA president Sean D. Elliott said in a statement:

NPPA firmly believes that the right to film government officials or matters of public concern in public places is virtually self-evident and fundamental to First Amendment protections…We also assert that the rights of the press and the public are co-extensive, especially in light of the vast proliferation of devices capable of recording and instantaneously transmitting high quality images to viewers world-wide. It is crucial that in a time when both professional visual journalists and everyday citizens have the capability to record in public that their rights to do so are supported by the Executive Branch of the government and upheld by the courts.”

Joshua Stearns of Free Press, who has documented over seventy instances where journalists have been arrested since last September, declared:

The right to record is vital at a time when so many people who witness public protests are carrying networked, camera-ready devices and smartphones. As the media landscape changes, we are witnessing an escalation in First Amendment abuses on the streets and in the halls of power. Freedom of the press is more important, not less, when anyone with a mobile phone or computer can act as a journalist.

The First Amendment guarantees both freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and those freedoms extend to everyone documenting public events. That’s true even if — or perhaps, especially if — law enforcement finds such reporting to be a nuisance. Now, more than ever, we need to proactively protect people’s right to record.

Whether Holder will instruct the Justice Department to step in and protect press freedom, there should be no issue over whether the Justice Department has the right to intervene. It can defend journalists and has in recent months. Back in January, the Justice Department urged a district judge in Maryland to rule in favor of a man who had his videos deleted by Baltimore police after he filmed police making an arrest at the Preakness Stakes. Attorneys asserted:

The right to record police officers while performing duties in a public place as well as the right to be protected from the warrantless seizure and destruction of those recordings, are not only required by the Constitution…They are consistent with our fundamental notions of liberty, promote the accountability of our governmental officers, and instill public confidence in the police officers who serve us daily.

But, police from the east coast to the west coast have consistently refused to uphold this right and, as a result, the USA fell twenty-seven places in the Press Freedom Index from twentieth to forty-seventh place in the rankings.

New York police have been atrocious when it comes to allowing press to do their jobs. Complaints from press have increased. Credentialed members have been reluctant to show credentials. Multiple letters from media organizations have been written to the NYPD. The NYPD has made overtures to press to calm down outrage, but each time the police vows to stop obstructing the press, there is another incident with officers violating press freedom. Sometimes they even behave like children by moving up and down and side to side as a photographer tries to get a shot or by shining a flashlight directly into cameras.

With the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit coming to Chicago this month, the call to the Justice Department takes on an even deeper resonance. A Chicago corporation counsel has said during the summit Chicago police won’t enforce an Illinois eavesdropping law that prohibits the recording of audio when filming police. This is huge news and not surprising given the fact that a judge recently decided the law was unconstitutional. But, the fact is the law will still be on the books in Illinois and at any point a police officer would have the authority to arrest people for recording or “eavesdropping” if they wanted to remove a person with a camera. They would have the authority to threaten people with arrest if they do not delete recordings (as they have done to Occupy protesters in Chicago before).

It is important that these organizations are stepping up to defend the right to record. Without cameras, police would have much more freedom to violently abuse and violate the rights of protesters. Defending freedom of the press does not just give journalists the ability to do their job but also gives citizens a level of protection from possible police brutality. The footage makes it possible for citizens to win cases against police if they are subjected to violence.