To Whom It May Concern:
My name’s Nyla Booras. I’m an Intern with RaisetheVoices and a New York City constituent, residing in New York City Council District 43. I am reaching out to you with concerns over the maltreatment of journalists in our city.
This past summer, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, mass protests were ignited across the nation as pent up frustration and grief towards the chronic disease of police brutality towards African Americans in America manifested into a long lasting social movement. Naturally, protests in the name of George Floyd and the larger issues of police brutality at large, rose in New York City, with the most prominent ones taking place during the first week of June 2020. At these protests, there were numerous instances where both credentialed journalists and non-credentialed ones alike, were victims of harassment, attacks, and unlawful arrests.
We at Raise the Voices have compiled cases of journalists mishandled by the NYPD into a spreadsheet (which can be found here), and these cases date back as early as 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thus, NYPD attacks on members of the press, a blatant constitutional violation, have gone without repercussions for far too long.
In my research, I found a wide array of maltreatment by the NYPD, from outright forceful arrests of credentialed journalists, to shoves, tackles, the use of batons, and even NYPD officers damaging journalists’ equipment and/or confiscating their property with little regard. Journalists who were victims of these authoritarian tactics came from all walks of life; some were credentialed while others were not, some represented American media outlets while others hailed from organizations in the UK and Canada, and some didn’t represent news outlets at all and were independent or freelance journalists.
However, these attributes, specifically whether or not they had credentials, shouldn’t have an influence on whether or not they have rights, especially considering the biased process of issuing credentials to the press. I, of course, am referring to the fact that the NYPD both issues press credentials and has the right to take them away. This monopolization of power is clear as day to us at Raise the Voices, and there is no sound reason as to why the police should be able to decide who is and who is not a journalist, at a whim’s notice no less.
In addition to indiscriminate attacks against journalists, the NYPD and the New York City government as a whole, did very little to address these rights violations. Meaningful action by the city in the form of oversight, intervention, and/or legislation was and remains nonexistent. Following each of the instances we’ve documented, NYPD officials either didn’t respond to comment requests or they issued indirect, half-hearted statements, such as directing people to the point in a press briefing where Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke generally on the issue. Similarly, the Mayor’s office also failed to take action, whether that be against the NYPD or via legislation, city executive orders, or resolutions that would reinforce journalists’ rights and protections. The same goes for the New York City Council.
A deep dive into the existing legislation and/or legal precedents that provide any sort of protections for journalists as they do their jobs led us to the conclusion that there are none. In fact, of the legislation we did find, modest protection is provided at best, and it is only in regard to journalists’ work and their sources. I am referring to New York’s Shield Law, which “provides absolute protection from forced disclosure of materials received in confidence by a ‘professional journalist,” including source identities and unpublished nonconfidential information. However, even this privilege can be surpassed during criminal cases, if it comes into conflict with a defendant’s 6th Amendment right.
All in all, this sole piece of protective legislation for journalists we could find, though branded as broadly protective of members of the press, doesn’t protect them from physical harm at the hands of law enforcement. What little protection is granted with Shield’s Law is over the material, information, and research collected by the reporter, not over their wellbeing.
Even in the wake of the June 2020 protests, there was no initiative to protect journalists from the maltreatment they were facing. Frankly, protections towards civilians to record police activity were ensured, while journalists were left out. On June 18th, 2020, The New York City Council passed the ‘Right to Record’ Police Transparency Legislation which extends this right and protection to civilians, and rightly so, but we question why the same protections weren’t explicitly granted journalists who were also visibly having their rights violated.
As a result of these findings, we at RaisetheVoices are demanding that the New York City Council open an investigation into the cases of journalist maltreatment by the NYPD, of which there are many. A response on and investigation into these instances are warranted under the Constitution, which grants members of the press rights and protections that were blatantly violated not only in the June 2020 protests, but many times over the years, especially during waves of large social movements. Beyond these investigations, it is vital that New York City bodies of government issue explicit protections to journalists’ physical wellbeing, especially in matters dealing with police, speedily. We at RaisetheVoices are calling on you to finally take tangible steps in the right direction, toward a future where police are held accountable for their actions, and journalists can fulfill their Constitutional duties without repressive interference.
This letter will be posted publicly as part of our advocacy journalism, along with any response from your office.