Wearing a badge doesn't make you an editor

Corrections
<b>CORRECTION:</b> Thomas Mitchell’s Sunday column (this column) mistakenly stated a CAT bus was used to block photographers while an officer’s body was being loaded into a coroner’s van. The incident occurred when the body was being unloaded at the coroner’s office.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ..."

-- Fourth Amendment

 

Everybody wants to be the editor. Everybody wants to decide what reporters can report and photographers can photograph. Everybody knows instinctively what is newsworthy for everyone else, and what is not.

This certitude is present in everyone with a modicum of authority, from the president to the lowliest bureaucrat.

For years, we and other newspapers have complained in futility about cops who want to play editor. When reporters and photographers arrive on the scene of a crime or some mishap and identify themselves as members of the press, they are corralled in some isolated, taped-off area out of view of the scene, out of earshot, lest they photograph or report something the cops don't want the public to see. It might be a corpse, an injured officer, a victim or a witness.

Never mind that our photographers shoot hundreds of frames and we edit them down to one or two to publish. And we certainly don't wish to drive away our readers by publishing something outside the boundaries of newsworthiness. (Example: When The Associated Press made available photos of a bleeding and dying soldier, we declined to publish. Our call. Had there been an overriding rationale to do so, it might've been different.)

Meanwhile, as the professional journalists remain cordoned off despite the imprimatur of press passes and a recognized duty to be on the scene to act as the surrogate of the taxpaying public, ordinary citizens are free to wander around at will.

(As I was working on this column Thursday morning and monitoring the breaking news about an off-duty Las Vegas police officer being shot to death, little did I know that I was being prophetic. When the officer's body was about to be loaded in a coroner's van, an officer directed a passenger-filled CAT bus to pull forward, blocking the view of the assembled photographers on the public sidewalk across the street.)

Now that attitude has been extended to Family Court.

On Monday, a throng of reporters and photographers gathered at Family Court for a child support hearing for Dr. Conrad Murray, whose medical care for the late pop star Michael Jackson has drawn the scrutiny of authorities and the press.

When the hearing was over, Dr. Murray exited, but the journalists in the courtroom were blocked by an armed bailiff, presumably so the celebrity doctor could escape the courthouse without being pestered by those rude members of the Fourth Estate.

Yes, those mob scenes of screaming tabloidistas and scrambling paparazzi are so unseemly, even embarrassing to those of us in the more genteel ranks, but that is no license for the bailiff to play editor.

The Review-Journal sent a letter to the presiding judge that day protesting the detention of our reporter.

"Brian Haynes, a reporter for the Review-Journal, was detained, along with other reporters, in your courtroom by court marshal Dennis Curran, following the Dr. Conrad Murray hearing," the letter stated. "We believe this conduct was outrageous. Reporters have a right to exit the courtroom at the same time as other participants or spectators to the proceedings. This was not a criminal matter and there were no security concerns present. We believe your bailiff's actions serve to undermine respect for the court system since it showed favoritism for Dr. Murray."

After receiving the letter, Chief District Judge Art Ritchie called with a rationalization but no excuse. He said the bailiffs were trying to maintain public safety, noting that it is routine in Family Court, where feuding parties have been known to come to blows, for bailiffs to detain one side in a dispute while the other exits the building. In hindsight, he conceded there was no justification for blocking the journalists from performing their duties, and safety could have been assured simply by escorting the doctor from the building.

"The court would do it differently, certainly, in the future," the judge said.

The next day The Associated Press added its own letter of protest for the record.

"It seems plain from the circumstances that court security personnel intended to spare Dr. Murray the inconvenience of facing questions from the reporters about his treatment of Michael Jackson," writes David Tomlin, an AP attorney.

"The court and all connected with it should be ashamed of this fiasco, carried out in its name and under its authority. If there is a plausible explanation consistent with the U.S. Constitution and state law, we would love to hear it."

In a follow-up story about the incident, reporter Haynes quoted me as saying the detainment was a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment "right of the people to be secure in their persons" and a violation of the First Amendment protection of the free press.

"A free press without access is a mockery ... it is not the role of bailiffs to assume the job of editor and decide who gets to ask questions and who doesn't."

 

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of a free press and access to public information and meetings. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj/blogs/mitchell.

 

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