Journalism is Under Attack, and Not Just in Ferguson

It is not a great time to be a journalist in America.

The assault on the First Amendment by militarized police in Ferguson, Mo., continues unabated, and the press is not spared. Since the start of protests against the August 9 killing of Michael Brown, journalists in Ferguson have been arrested, fired on, threatened, and assaulted.

After more than a week of heavy-handed police violence – through the use of tactics and weapons better suited for a warzone than an American suburb – freedoms of speech and the press were dealt a major legal blow on Tuesday. A federal court denied a motion from the ACLU of Missouri for an emergency order to prevent police from enforcing a ban on standing in place for more than five seconds. The "keep-moving mandate" (also known as the five-second rule) remains in place, criminalizing constitutionally protected activity and placing a dangerous barrier on the ability of the media to bring us stories from this city under siege. As Tony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, told MSNBC, "In many ways, the First Amendment has been suspended in Ferguson."

This defeat came on the heels of an earlier victory, in which the ACLU of Missouri reached an agreement with the police, stating that members of the public and the press can record on-duty police officers. That was good news – except it should never have been up for debate, because you always have the right to photograph what's plainly visible in public. Including the police.

Addressing events in Ferguson, President Obama had some encouraging words last week that defended this country's proud tradition of media freedom. "Here, in the United States of America," he said, "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."

But those strong words, a reflection of the foundational role of the media in our democracy, belie what has become a sustained attack by the government on press freedoms.

The Obama administration is the most aggressive in U.S. history when it comes to prosecuting journalists' sources for disclosing unauthorized leaks. It has gone after the journalists, too. In just one example, it continues to pursue a Bush-era subpoena of James Risen, a New York Times journalist, to testify against a source accused of leaking information about CIA efforts to derail Iran's nuclear program. In an effort to sever journalists from their sources, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently went so far as to sign a directive forbidding intelligence officials from talking to the press – even about unclassified matters – without securing permission in advance.

Widespread government surveillance, in addition to imperiling the privacy rights of millions of Americans, has also severely undermined the freedom of the press. A recent ACLU-Human Rights Watch report shows that many journalists have found information and sources increasingly hard to come by. To make matters more burdensome, they've had to resort to elaborate techniques to keep their communications secret. The result? We get less information about what our government is doing in our name.

The right to record the actions of the government without it interfering is a basic prerequisite to a functioning democracy. Restrictions on media freedom – whether via surveillance, prosecutions, or tear gas – rob us of the information we need to engage in informed debates, assess our government's policies and practices, and hold it to account. Journalists aren't criminals, and they shouldn't have to act like spies.

But there's still a fight to be fought. A media shield law taken up last year by the Senate gives journalists important protection from having to disclose their sources (though it does have some problems, including a deeply concerning national security exception).

In Ferguson and elsewhere, the ACLU remains vigilant, making sure protesters and journalists know their rights and challenging restrictions on speech. So be sure to brush up – and if your rights have been violated, we want to know about it.

Learn more about protestor's rights and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (5)
Read the Terms of Use

Family member o...

Oh well isn't that just SUCH a crying shame. Half of them have utter contempt for the PEOPLE involved in any of their stories "of human interest," and they do things like sneak onto private property, ring your doorbell in the middle of dinner and then try to browbeat a story from one of the family members after another relative said she was not able to talk.
That's not a god dang first amendment violation to tell someone to LEAVE when you don't want them on property that they're not even paying for, you are and why the hell they can never let a story die is another issue altogether.
This was a year after it had happened. God KNOWS what they would have done after it first occurred but the person they wanted to talk to spent four months in Bellevue Psychiatric ward right after it happened and a few more months in a different hospital because I found out Bellevue was horrendous.
Nobody has ever voiced feeling the least bit sorry that things like that occur. I dang sure don't have time to feel sorry for the mostly unscrupulous reporters who will do anything, and I mean anything, to get their damn story.

Fredric L. Rice

If you look at the excuses that the fascists are stating, denying citizens their First Amendment rights is to protect us. :) Literally they are claiming that journalists covering the fascist tyranny are *causing* the fascists to commit even more fascist tyranny.

The logic they are stating is that because journalists are covering the fascists, local citizens are motivated to "act out for the cameras" which is forcing the fascists to commit even more crimes against Americans. Ergo by shutting down journalism in the region, by not allowing helicopter news reporters to video take the fascist atrocities police are committing, the fascists are keeping us all safe.


Can anyone today actually identify journalism or the difference between reporting and editorializing?. This article, for example, is clearly an opinion piece and not an unbiased report on an event. Or is there a difference anymore? And I'm pretty sure that the First Amendment is not a Super Power and that holding it up in front of you will not make you impervious to having broken any other law.


Using Ferguson to bash the President/

many in the MSM media use the headlines of RW media as a way of pushing that RW messages...MSM media is owned by 6 corporations...whose message will they be touting....

and speaking of media...Fox news and their cousin CNN...make a point of dishing out misinformation...and in some cases out right lies....

when I see your headlines talk about this...then I will take you seriously


I am concerned as to why the ACLU is accepting the law as a setback, I do not recognize the authority of any official who feels they have a right to alter or suspend any of my constitutional rights. After all the main oath is to protect from both foreign and domestic.

Stay Informed