A Young Reporter's Guide to Staying Out of Jail

Planning to write about or photograph the next anti-war protest for your school newspaper? Listen up: The Student Press Law Center is advising student journalists who plan to cover anti-war protests around the country to take several precautionary steps to avoid being arrested or detained by police as were several student reporters attempting to cover the March 15 protests and the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings in D.C. last September. -- WireTap

1) Bring credentials. Every student journalist covering the event should have something that clearly identifies him or her as a member of the press. D.C. police have said that they recognize official media credentials issued by any government law enforcement agency. Thus a personalized credential from your local, county or state police department may be the best identification. If that isn't available or cannot be obtained in time for the event, an official credential document identifying the journalist by name and photo as a member of their publication staff may be the next best alternative.

2) Avoid the appearance of being a participant in the protests. Wearing insignia, carrying signs or joining in chants with protest participants (or counter-protesters) increases the likelihood that a journalist will be perceived as there for a purpose other than to collect information and cover the news. Editors should ensure that they know which of their staff members are there to cover the events so that if trouble should arise, they can immediately identify each staff member as a journalist and not a protester.

3) Bring a cell phone and at least $50 cash. If detained or threatened with arrest, the ability to contact outside help quickly can be important. Have a means for contacting your editor, adviser or an attorney if necessary. It might be wise to make a plan for all reporters and photographers on the scene to check in periodically with an editor or another newspaper staff member outside of the protest area who will be available during the protest. Although you won't want to pay any "post and forfeit" fee unless you are willing to admit to the offense you've been accused of (see point 5 below), if there comes a point where you choose to pay for your release, you'll need the cash to do so. But be forewarned that despite police pledges, those who "post and forfeit" are not necessarily released any sooner than those who choose to contest the charges against them.

4) Obey all police orders.  If ordered by police officials to leave an area or disperse, move outside the crowd and find a place to observe and cover as close as possible. If possible, identify yourself as a journalist to the officer in charge and ask for guidance as to where you can continue your job without interfering with theirs. If you believe police are acting unlawfully or unreasonably in orders given to you, you should do your best to document the names and titles of those involved as well as the names and contact information of other witnesses. If possible, take photos or video of the police misconduct and, as soon as possible, write down what happened. It is generally not a wise idea to disobey a police order on the scene, but you can ask them to reconsider if you make clear that you do not want to interfere with their efforts and will ultimately obey an order given. However, as soon as is practicable, contact an attorney for guidance on how to file a formal complaint.

5) If arrested or detained, act immediately. First, inform the police officers in question that you are a journalist there to cover the events and show them your press credentials. If they disregard your status, encourage that they contact their superior officer before they take any action against a member of the press. Second, contact your editor or other staff representative and let him or her know what's happening. Third, if police insist on arresting or detaining you, let them know that you wish to contact your lawyer and do so immediately. Do not agree to plead guilty (or "no contest" or pay a "post and forfeit fee") to any charge without first talking to legal counsel or fully understanding what you are doing. If you believe you are not guilty, you only preserve all of your legal rights by pleading "not guilty." -- SPLC

Any student journalists that have questions in advance of their protest coverage should contact the Student Press Law Center for assistance at (703) 807-1904.


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