It’s Up to Us to Protect the First Amendment

What happens when a journalist is arrested? How do we account for the stories that don’t get told, or the issues that don’t get covered because the press was restricted or behind bars? How do we measure the intimidation journalists feel, and the chill that police intervention places on freedom of the press? One gauge might be the U.S.’s recent drop in global press freedom rankings, down to number 47 worldwide.

Another measurement might be the words of journalists themselves. Kristin Hanes, a journalist who was arrested last month in Oakland, recentlytweeted: “Whenever journalists are arrested/detained for reporting the news, everyone’s freedom is at risk. That is what frightens me most.” Susie Cagle, who has been arrested twice, put it this way on Twitter: “When journos arrested, access is gone & the story often dies. That to me is a reason to be upset, apart from unjust arrests.” Another journalist, a freelancer without the benefit of institutional backing and legal support, is worried about being able to cover future protests because her arrest charges are still pending.

An array of local and national press freedom organizations has stepped up, sending letters to local police departments and providing legal and financial assistance to arrested journalists. However, they can’t win this fight alone. That’s why we at Free Press and called on our members this week to stand with the arrested journalists and with press freedom groups like the Newspaper Guild, the Society for Professional Journalists and the National Press Photographers Association.

In the last 48 hours, more than 16,000 people have signed on to support the arrested journalists and defend the First Amendment in their communities. The number keeps growing. Our members support the efforts of journalism organizations in Oakland and New York to improve relationships between police and press, but we also recognize that this is a national issue touching at least 10 other cities. With more political events — and likely, more protests — in the year to come, we all need to be part of solutions that strengthen the First Amendment.

At their best, journalists tell our stories and cover our communities with depth, care and a critical eye. When it comes to the future of journalism, we are all in this together. Journalists with laptops, freelancers with cameras, ordinary people with cellphones — we all need to be able to speak freely. The First Amendment does not apply only to journalists. It applies to all Americans, and we all have to take responsibility when it is threatened or eroded. Our members thank the journalists and citizen reporters who risk their safety to get the story, and the organizations that support this important work.