In a letter sent today to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the New York Civil Liberties Union objected to the Police Department’s mistreatment of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street protests.
The letter expresses concerns about the “media blackout” the NYPD imposed during last week’s forced eviction of Zuccotti Park, which effectively prevented firsthand reporting of the incident. It urges Mayor Bloomberg to convene a meeting with the NYPD, media outlets and the NYCLU to discuss the Police Department’s mistreatment of the press. The NYCLU’s letter was sent in conjunction with a similar letter from several major media organizations.
“The NYPD must respect freedom of the press – a core democratic principle,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The NYPD’s actions – abusing and arresting reporters, and enforcing a media blackout of the park eviction – raise grave concerns. Given Mayor Bloomberg’s repeated expressions of support for the First Amendment, we have no doubt he will take action to address these issues.”
In addition to the two letters, a group of organizations that represent journalists announced today the formation of the Coalition for the First Amendment to monitor relations between the NYPD and the press.
In a joint statement, the groups declared:
“When New York City police evicted “Occupy Wall Street” protesters from Zuccotti Park in the early hours of Tuesday, November 15th, more than 20 journalists were arrested and several were injured. In what appeared to be a planned maneuver, police officers forced reporters and photographers so far away from Zuccotti Park that they could not see what was happening. They roughed up people who were trying to fulfill their duty to report the news.
“We have formed this coalition to monitor police actions. What the police did on November 15th to suppress coverage of their activities was intolerable. We are determined to use any means needed to fight such censorship in the future. In the city in which John Peter Zenger fought for and helped establish freedom of the press, we can do no less.”
The NYCLU has documented numerous accounts in which journalists were arrested, threatened with arrest and subjected to physical force by police officers while seeking to cover the eviction. In one incident, a journalist was struck with a police baton, bruising his arm and damaging his camera’s lens. Another reporter reported being struck on the shoulder with a baton immediately after identifying herself as a journalist to a police officer. In another incident, a reporter had his NYPD-issued press credential yanked from his neck for attempting to cover the eviction.
In addition to these and other incidents, the city reportedly closed off airspace over Zuccotti Park to prevent news helicopters from documenting the police raid.
“It’s clear the NYPD aggressively blocked reporters from covering the eviction, which was a news event of national interest,” said Christopher Dunn, the NYCU’s associate legal director. “The Department’s behavior showed a disturbing disregard for the First Amendment. We expect Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly to take immediate steps to ensure that police officers respect the freedom of the press.”
The letter from media organizations was signed by representatives of The New York Times, the National Press Photographers Association, the Associated Press, Reuters, the Daily News, the New York Post, Dow Jones & Company, WCBS-TV, WNBC-TV, NBC Universal and the New York Press Photographers Association.
The The NYCLU’s Letter reads,
Dear Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly:
On behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union, we write in conjunction with the letter
sent today by major media organizations to NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne objecting
to the serious mistreatment of j ournalists seeking to cover the policing of the Occupy Wall Street
protests. We believe the Mayor’s Office must become directly involved in this matter, given the
serious First Amendment issues raised by the media organizations and given the Police
Department’s failure to address those issues since learning of them many months ago, We
therefore request that Mayor Bloomberg convene a meeting with the media organizations,
Commissioner Kelly and Mr. Browne, and the NYCLU.
As you undoubtedly are aware, there have been many public accounts of reporters,
photographers, and other journalists being mistreated and subjected to physical force during
OWS protests and further of over 25 journalists being arrested, We also have received many
direct reports from journalists describing mistreatment that parallels the mistreatment outlined in
the letter from the media organizations. (We enclose a copy of their letter.) Because these
actions strike at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of the press, the
NYCLU has been particularly alarmed by these accounts.
As an initial matter, we are deeply concerned about the “media blackout” imposed by the
NYPD that effectively blocked first-hand reporting of the forcible eviction of protesters from
Zuccotti Park last week. Journalists who were already in the park were forced to leave under
threat of arrest, while others, even those with NYPD-issued press credentials, were blocked by barricades and forced to remain at least one block away from the park in every direction. Two
journalists we spoke with convinced police to let them past barricades to within a block of
Zuccotti Park, only to be subsequently threatened with arrest if they did not leave the area. When
one attempted to remain south of Cortlandt Street on Broadway, he was told, “I don’t give a fuck
who you are – you wasted your chance” and was pushed to the ground by an NYPD officer.
When journalists told police that they were journalists, the officers repeatedly said they did not
care. One officer told a photographer, “Not tonight,” and another told a photographer, “Jesus,
you press guys … you’re keeping us from doing our jobs.” That photographer also reported
having his NYPD-issued press credential yanked from around his neck by the police for
attempting to remain in Zuccotti Park to document the eviction. In addition, NYPD officials
reportedly told Brookfield security guards not to let journalists into the lobby of One Liberty
Plaza, and the city reportedly closed airspace over the area to prevent news helicopters from
documenting the police actions.
Beyond preventing journalists from documenting the actions of the police, numerous
journalists were arrested and subjected to physical force by NYPD officers during and after the
eviction. We have heard numerous stories ofNYPD officers liberally using force against both
journalists and others. There seemed to be no supervisors in some of the areas, and officers gave
the impression of “a blue-shirt free-far-all,” in which they did not know what they were supposed
to be doing and instead improvised aggressively. One photographer we spoke with was struck
with a police baton on his arm and his camera lens, resulting in a bruise and in severe damage to
the lens. Another report was struck in the shoulder with a baton immediately after telling the
officer that she was a journalist. Several other journalists we spoke with were shoved by police,
including onto the ground, despite having done all they could to comply with the officers’
One particularly troubling location was Broadway on the few blocks north of the park,
The crowd on the sidewalk of Broadway near Cortlandt Street was pushed northward by a line of
police into another line of police to the north of them, making it impossible for them to comply
with shouted police orders to continue moving or to get off of the narrow sidewalk. One
cameraman we spoke with had purposely remained in the back of the crowd in order to avoid
getting arrested, but while he was trapped between the two police lines and scaffolding on the
Broadway sidewalk, officers from the north line grabbed him and arrested him, despite his shouts
of “I’m a journalist I” Video footage demonstrates that he and others who were arrested had no
way to disperse.
We therefore request a meeting to address these concerns as soon as possible. If you or
members of your staff have any questions about our request, please let us know.
Associate Legal Director