Media cannot be denied access: Law enforcement must comply with First Amendment

The media’s “rights” of access are exactly the same as all private citizens. Our rights are not more, and most certainly should never — under any circumstances — be any less. The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Lowndes County Board of Education ran afoul of the First Amendment in retarding the freedom of the press Saturday by enforcing restrictions that were more restrictive than what the general public was allowed to do. Law enforcement, or any other government entity, may choose to grant special privileges to the press, but they cannot choose to place special restrictions on the press. If journalists attempting to cover the Lowndes High graduation this past weekend had chosen to be arrested, it would have been a clear First Amendment violation and actionable in court. The city of Atlanta has been under a court order for more than two years because of restricting a citizen journalist from taping an incident that took place in public view. The city has subsequently been hit with a contempt of court order for additional violations. Since the 2012 court order there, police have arrested journalists covering protests and have seized cameras — all in violation of the First Amendment and in contempt of the court order. A federal court could impose $10,000 per day fines if the city does not provide evidence that its police force has radically changed its policies and procedures. The Atlanta police department has been ordered to retrain all its officers. The Lowndes high school graduation ceremony was a public event, in a public place that the public freely attended. Ironically, members of the press were given free rein to cover a protest that occurred outside of the stadium, but were told they could not cover the graduation, like they always have in the past. The press can do anything the public can do and the public can do anything the press has the “right” to do. If there are restrictions because of safety concerns, or traffic congestion, then those restrictions must be unilaterally applied. The press cannot be put in a penalty box because someone doesn’t like something they have said or done. Another irony in all of this is law enforcement worked hard to protect the First Amendment rights of the protesters, while attempting to abridge the First Amendment Rights of the Press. On a day that celebrated the education of our young people, it is local law enforcement and the board of education that needs a civics lesson. Valdosta Daily Times reporter Adam Floyd and WCTV reporter Winnie Wright did the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Lowndes school system a favor by choosing not to be arrested. Both reporters were told they could not enter the campus to cover graduation, and believed if they forced the issue they would have been arrested. Floyd knew that a colleague was already covering the ceremony and had entered the stadium like every other person who was there, so he made his case, pressed his point, but stopped short of being arrested. If Floyd and Wright had been arrested or their equipment confiscated, local officials could have found themselves in a mess similar to what is going on in Atlanta. Calling this whole thing a misunderstanding or miscommunication is not good enough. For the school’s attorney to say law enforcement misunderstood his orders is not good enough. The courts have said police must be fully trained and if they are not, they must be retrained. Both reporters are very well known, were called by their first names and clearly were there to provide positive, vibrant coverage of one of the most important days in the lives of these graduates. They were not allowed to do so. County officials must do better. It’s the law.

— Jim Zachary, The Valdosta Daily Times 

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