The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Harassing the Press in Missouri

By Roy Gutterman, August 14, 2014

Recent police action in Missouri is an affront to journalists and the First Amendment.

Reporters for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, who were covering the shooting of a teenager and subsequent civil unrest and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, were arrested and otherwise harassed by local police. This “side spectacle” shows that during tragedies and major news events, like riots, the press is at risk.

Published accounts by the reporters do not indicate that they were obstructing or otherwise hindering police investigations or police efforts to suppress the riot. These were legitimate members of the institutional press, not advocates or participants in any political movement. They were journalists. Though the reporters were released without charges, this type of incident nevertheless poses a significant threat to journalists who are on the front lines, whether covering riots here in the United States or wars abroad.

In a country with strong protections under the First Amendment, reporters should not be harassed, no matter how emotionally-charged events may be. The facts about what happened in Ferguson are still being sorted out, and the investigation will likely require intervention by state and federal authorities. But this is a story of national import and the riots are a major component of the story, and should be covered. The press will assume a vital and independent role in telling this story, keeping the public informed and keeping all sides accountable. The press has to be allowed to do its job.

After weighing in on the tragedy and the riots, President Obama concluded, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

Let’s hope law enforcement takes a look at the First Amendment next time.