Reject unconstitutional efforts to criminalize legal support numbers

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

FPF’s own safety guide for covering protests includes information about keeping legal contact information on your person.

Journalists covering protests often write phone numbers for their attorneys or legal helplines on their arms. Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) advises them to do so in our own guide. Other press freedom organizations provide similar advice.

It’s not because journalists intend to commit crimes — it’s because police have an unfortunate habit of arresting journalists for doing their jobs, and saved contacts aren’t much use if police seize your phone. Yet prosecutors in Atlanta, in pursuing charges against “Cop City” protesters accused of domestic terrorism, have argued that having a jail support phone number written on one’s body is evidence of criminal intent.

FPF joined a coalition of over 40 organizations, led by the National Lawyers Guild, to respond to these alarming prosecution arguments that ignore not only the First Amendment but the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. As the NLG explains, “[p]eople write these numbers on their arms in preparation for demonstrations precisely because they know they may be unjustly detained, and because they know that police use mass arrest as a form of crowd control that is calculated to disrupt protected speech.”

In other words, the only illegality reflected by the practice is not by journalists and protesters but by police officers who wrongfully arrest them.

If prosecutors succeed in criminalizing jail support numbers for protesters it’s just a matter of time before the same arguments are made against journalists. U.S. Press Freedom Tracker data shows that, for several years, the vast majority of journalist arrests have occurred during demonstrations. Seizures of cellphones are a legitimate concern for reporters. And we’ve already seen police detain and intimidate journalists while covering the Cop City protests specifically.

FPF Principal Researcher Dr. Martin Shelton, who co-authored the above-mentioned guide for journalists covering demonstrations, explained:

“Both for journalists covering protests and protesters themselves, these events can be unpredictable. Everyone in attendance is at risk of having their devices broken or seized, and that's why we can't rely on a smartphone contact list to maintain access to critical support. Going into a protest, writing a phone number on your body is not much different than committing that number to memory.”

Anyone who values the First Amendment should be alarmed by the suggestion that writing down legal support numbers evidences criminality — especially in the midst of a prosecution of protesters for “domestic terrorism” based on guilt by association.

Law enforcement should not be allowed to reward its own bad behavior by inferring criminality from practices journalists and protesters adopted precisely because of the long history of wrongful arrests at protests. And prosecutors should apologize for their ignorance of the Constitution they’re sworn to defend.

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