Since 1958, when I became a reporter at the Voice, I have covered every mayor—including the monarchical Rudy Giuliani—and every police commissioner, but never have I witnessed such brutish contempt for the First Amendment rights of the press (and therefore of us) as the Bloomberg–Kelly arrests and other prior restraints of reporters.
The disgrace to this city has become a national issue. Enter the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which gives free legal support to thousands of journalists across the country and is a frequent First Amendment litigator in the courts. I joined the Reporters Committee in the 1970s and am on its steering committee.
Charges Executive Director Lucy Dalglish: “It is extremely disturbing that credentialed journalists would be singled out in a roundup aimed at preventing them from witnessing police activity in the disbanding of the Occupy Wall Street camp. What country are we living in?” (Emphasis added.)
When self-anointed First Amendment Mayor Bloomberg insisted that reporters were being kept away from police roundups for their own good, Dalglish said: “As the owner of a major media company, Mayor Bloomberg surely knows journalists cover dangerous situations every day.” This mayor knows everything.
Adds Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who is running for mayor: “Zuccotti Park is not Tiananmen Square.” (Daily News, November 16) That’s when he got my vote.
In a letter to the Bloomberg–Kelly silencers, the ever-vigilant Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, confronted them with their un-American official occupancy of Zuccotti Park: “Journalists who are already in the park were forced to leave under threat of arrest, while others, even those with NYPD-issued press credentials, were blocked by barricades. . . . When one attempted to remain south of Cortland Street on Broadway, he was told, ‘I don’t give a fuck who you are—you wasted your chance.’”
Added Michael Powell of The New York Times on November 22: “Over several days, New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed barriers at reporters and photographers.”
But this NYPD hoodlum culture has been rife before Occupy Wall Street. Powell reminds us: “At least since the Republican National Convention of 2004, our police have grown accustomed to forcibly pinning, arresting, and sometimes spraying and whacking protesters and reporters.” (Emphasis added.)
The First Amendment still being vigorously alive during the reign of Bloomberg and Kelly, the New York City press has not been subdued. Reminding their censors what country they’re living in, stinging protest letters have been sent to these high officials who purportedly serve us—as well as their puppet spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne—by The New York Times; Reuters; the New York Post; TV networks CBS, NBC, and ABC; the Associated Press; the New York Daily News; the Deadline Club; the Newswomen’s club; News Media Guide; and others I don’t have space to include.
What’s the reaction from public servant Bloomberg, but also the man riding high in polls, Ray Kelly? Dig this: They know that with our instant access to ceaseless news and pontificating, few stories stay alive in the public mind for long.
So, the way for officials to defuse smoldering public criticism is to solemnly promise immediate remediation. (“Trust us!”) I doubt that many New Yorkers have full faith in the credibility of our prancing mayor. But the police commissioner has long been widely respected and by some, even almost revered (including by certain journalists).
Get this: Ray Kelly has issued an internal message ordering officers in New York City not to interfere with journalist access during news media coverage. Those who do will be subject to disciplinary action. (New York Times, November 24) Do you believe in Santa Claus?
The New York Civil Liberties Union will remain alert. Donna Lieberman makes the necessary point that there has been a “lack of meaningful oversight over the NYPD.”
Lieberman suggests that it’s “time for the City Council to weigh in and figure whether there is a legislative response.” Surely there should be, but the City Council is not noted for meaningful and sustained real-time action to bring this mayor and his police commissioner into the rule of law. It’s necessary to emphasize “sustained” action.
This and other approaches to accountability are reported in Joe Pompeo’s “Media, civil liberties groups look at legislative options to address NYPD actions during protests.” (Capitalnewyork.com, November 23)
And now let’s hear from candidates to succeed our incumbent mayor and his decidedly selective enforcement of the First Amendment. Would Christine Quinn dare criticize the iconic Ray Kelly?
I am somewhat encouraged by the “Coalition Formed to Monitor Police/Press Relations in NYC.” The NYPC declares: “We are determined to use any means needed to fight such censorship in the future. In the city in which John Peter Zenger fought for and helped establish freedom of the press, we can do no less.”
If we had civics classes in our public schools, the new generation would discover how John Peter Zenger’s New York Weekly was hauled into court in 1735 by the haughty royal governor of the state, William Cosby. (No relation to our civil libertarian and civil rights comedian Bill Cosby, whom I once, in conversation, urged to run for president.)
The 18th-century newspaper had sharply criticized the royal governor for incompetence, favoritism, and diverse grave failings. The insulted Cosby charged Zenger with “seditious libel.” The jury rebelled and ruled for freedom of the press.
Said Gouverneur Morris, a leading participant in the American Revolution: “The trial of Zenger in 1735 was the germ of American Freedom, the morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”
How come? Because as I reported in my book, The First Freedom (Dell Publishing, 1981), Gouverneur Morris said to his fellow American colonists that Zenger’s victory “so embodied the philosophy that freedom, both of thought and speech, was an inborn human right.”
When a stenographic record of John Peter Zenger’s first step toward our First Amendment was printed in England, a British editor said “it had made a great noise in the world.”
How many of our New York City students have heard of John Peter Zenger? How many other New Yorkers have? I’d bet the farm, if I had one, that neither Bloomberg nor Kelly have. And I applaud the New York Press Club for bringing John Peter Zenger so relevantly back home.
I suggest that when Donna Lieberman appears before the City Council to get a legislative response to ordering Bloomberg and Kelly back into the Constitution, she remind the Council members of the glorious patriotic New York legacy of John Peter Zenger.
Imagine Zenger’s reaction to this NYPD operation, one of a series of accounts of police busts of the press in a letter to Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne by New York Times general counsel George Freeman on November 21:
“A [newspaper] photographer, standing on the sidewalk on Trinity Place was photographing a man the police were carrying from somewhere in the park who was covered in blood. The photographer was standing behind a metal barrier 20 to 30 yards from the scene.
“As he raised his camera to take a picture, two other police officers came running toward him, grabbed a metal barrier and forcefully ran at him, striking the photographer in the chest, knee, and shin. As they did that, they screamed that he was not permitted to be taking photographs on the sidewalk—the most traditionally recognized forum aside from a park.”
Take a bow, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly—to King George III.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 2011