A plea for calm in local church/”Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 55″ by Loavesofbread [Centred pic]

Some officers may have thought so.

The big story about the shooting of Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Missouri (near St. Louis), is quite rightly, the resistance of Brown’s parents to rioting in response to aggressive, probably inappropriate policing.

But there is another small story that could become important. As historian Stephen Smoot explains,

Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post also were taken into custody. Reporters customarily use McDonalds as bases of operation because of free wifi and available outlets to recharge equipment. Police closing the restaurant arrested the two reporters for not moving quickly enough. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery described later how an officer slammed him into a soda fountain.

Police refused to give names and badge numbers of the arresting officers.

A sign that officers may be going beyond standard procedure in some cases came from the Ferguson police chief himself. When told by a Los Angeles Times reporter of the treatment meted to the reporters, he replied “Oh God.”

The reporters were released soon after.

Suggestion to chief: Send next departmental memo to your procedures manual authors. Not to God.

I am hardly as surprised as some.

Some years ago in Toronto, a journalist was arrested for taking pictures of an abortion clinic, at the time guarded by police against protesters. The charges against her were later dropped, no doubt due to considerable pressure from fellow journalists and constitutional lawyers.

At the time, many reporter friends worried much about the outcome.

A police officer friend comforted (strengthened) us by pointing out that, strictly speaking, in the English common law system of justice, the police have no right in principle to prevent other citizens from watching them at work. The other citizens need not  be some sort of official “journalists” to do so.  

That is a misunderstanding. Anyone can stand there and watch the police at work.

Police, journalists, and others are all just citizens. 

A couple of qualifications: The police are entitled, and often obliged, to clear an area in a true emergency (like the 2008 gas plant blowup which took the life of a Toronto fire chief and required the evacuation of thousands).  Or if they are investigating a serious crime.

None of this in any way means that police can simply shield their activities from other citizens. Police are to clear a physical area for safety reasons, not to clear witnesses out of the picture.

The Toronto journalist’s story mentioned above unfolded long before new media became the norm. But new media have sharpened these policing issues now that anyone may post photos from a comparatively safe distance.

And increasingly, that is a right we may need to defend.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...