Arrests of independent journalists should make headlines too

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Body camera footage shows police slamming journalist Lucas Mullikin to the ground and arresting him after he asked for the badge number of an officer who had previously assaulted him for recording an arrest. Unlike arrests of journalists employed by major news outlets, the story has gotten little national attention.

The New York Times, CNN, and many other national outlets reported on NewsNation journalist Evan Lambert’s arrest at a news conference in Ohio earlier this year. Same when Phoenix police detained Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Rabouin outside a bank.

We’re glad those arrests made headlines — if anything, they should have gotten more coverage. The publicity prompted Phoenix’s mayor to apologize to Rabouin for his detainment and Ohio’s governor to denounce Lambert’s arrest while authorities dropped the charges. Without the backlash, who knows — his case might have proceeded to trial.

But since a video posted last week showed police in Yuma, Arizona, arresting freelance journalist Lucas Mullikin for lawfully recording a violent arrest and asking for the badge number of an officer who assaulted him (police have since released bodycam footage), we’ve heard crickets from the national media.

When Atlanta officers twice detained independent journalists documenting protests over the “Cop City” police training center, the only outlet to cover the stories (besides our U.S. Press Freedom Tracker), as far as we can tell, was the Atlanta online outlet Saporta Report.

And when police arrested Asheville Blade journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit for recording them evicting a homeless encampment at a public park, you couldn’t find coverage outside North Carolina. Only after they were unjustly convicted (they’re appealing) did the national media begin to take some interest — and even then, few outlets covered the case in any detail. The Tracker is full of additional examples of journalist arrests that went unnoticed.

It’s unfortunate that so many major news outlets only seem concerned with police harassment of journalists when the victim is one of their own. Maybe the trend has less to do with what journalists care about than what business people think readers will click on. Whatever the reason, though, it creates the appearance that the mainstream media is less concerned with press freedom than with protecting members of their club. And that’s terribly shortsighted.

The protection of the First Amendment’s press clause isn’t only for journalists who are employed full time by a well-known news outlet. Nor is it limited to journalists who graduated from J-School or who strive for “objectivity” (a concept that was unheard of when the First Amendment was drafted). The Constitution is meant to safeguard the rights of anyone engaging in acts of journalism — not just professional journalists.

The other side of that coin is that reporters who do work for major media powerhouses are nonetheless bound by legal precedents set by cases involving everyone from freelancers to bloggers to citizen journalists, regardless of whether they consider them their journalistic equals. If Bliss and Coit’s convictions are upheld on appeal, that means no journalist in North Carolina can legally record cops at parks after curfew, just like if Julian Assange is convicted for obtaining and publishing government secrets, the Washington Post could be next.

And as established news outlets continue to shrink and shutter, more and more of the law on press freedom is going to be shaped by cases involving unconventional journalists from outside the bubble. They may not have the funds to mount effective legal defenses (and may not know about the free legal resources available to them), so it’s especially vital that journalists who do have national platforms use them to help stop prosecutions before they start.

The August raid of the Marion County Record was a noteworthy exception — it made national news even though the Record is far from a household name. That was likely due to the sheer outrageousness of an entire police force ransacking a local newsroom and publisher’s home, as well as the raid’s tragic aftermath (the paper’s elderly co-owner Joan Meyer died after the raid, seemingly from shock). The public’s interest in the story proved readers do care about press freedom violations, even when they haven’t heard of the victims.

Would stories about less dramatic incidents in places like Asheville and Yuma get the same spotlight as the reporting on the Marion raid? To be honest, probably not. But they might help journalists retain the legal protections that allow them to write the stories that do.

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