Journalists, police working out ground rules for GOP convention in Tampa

Published May 30, 2012

TAMPA — Protesters might not be the only people filling Hillsborough's jails during the Republican National Convention.

Journalists could face detentions — even arrests. And though Tampa police say they're working very hard to make sure it doesn't happen, it might be inevitable.

That's because these two groups don't see eye-to-eye.

About 15,000 journalists are expected at the convention. Many have good relationships with the law enforcement agencies in their cities. They're used to broad access.

"However, we're dealing with the largest event in the city's history," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

To Tampa police, journalists are like any member of the public. If police need to clear an area they deem dangerous, reporters and photographers will have to leave, too, McElroy said.

It's "physically and logistically impossible" to allow a group of people to stay in an area where police are trying to gain control, McElroy said.

Journalists will be able to stand nearby so they can cover the event, McElroy said, though specifics on how far back will depend on the circumstances.

This strategy irks some journalists, who believe they have the right to be where news is happening. At the 2008 convention in St. Paul, as many as four dozen journalists were arrested — some during moments that weren't chaotic.

Tampa police say they're training to make pinpoint extractions of violent people, avoiding mass arrests whenever possible. But if sweeping detentions do happen, journalists could be included.

Tampa Bay Times editor and vice president Neil Brown said Times journalists will act professionally, wearing visible credentials and avoid situations that threaten public safety.

"We come to this work with the presumption that our reporters and photographers will abide by the law, but under the First Amendment they have an important job to do to report on events and keep the residents of Tampa Bay informed," Brown said. "If our journalists are on public property and doing their jobs professionally, I see no reason for conflict with authorities."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national nonprofit group, is preparing for rocky relations between police and reporters.

"Unfortunately, almost every major political event in the past 12 years has included the arrest of, interference with or outright assault on journalists covering the news," director Lucy Dalglish wrote in a letter this month to Tampa officials.

Dalglish said police "grab everybody and take them to a holding area,'' where they might sort through who's who.

Some worry this so-called "catch and release" system could hamper journalists covering protests outside the convention.

• • •

Of the four dozen journalists arrested at the St. Paul RNC, few received as much attention — or brought as much backlash to police — as Democracy Now host Amy Goodman.

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Problems started as Goodman, host of a politically progressive syndicated radio and TV show, approached police, asking for details on why they detained two of her co-workers.

According to Goodman, as she walked up to the line of police officers and requested to see their commanding officer, she was pushed through the line and arrested for — among other things — crossing the police line.

"It was so out of control and ridiculous," Goodman said recently, noting that she and the staffers were clearly identified as journalists.

A YouTube video showing her arrest now has over 1 million views and sparked a huge controversy at the time. The city of St. Paul later declined to prosecute working journalists arrested during the convention, including Goodman and her staffers, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

But the Democracy Now journalists eventually sued the Minneapolis and St. Paul Police Departments, the Ramsey County Sheriff and U.S. Secret Service personnel, announcing a settlement last year that included a $100,000 payment and required training for police on the First Amendment rights of journalists.

Goodman said she fears a $10 million insurance policy insisted on by local governments and paid by the convention led police in 2008 to adopt an "arrest first, sort it out later" approach, free from concern about lawsuits and settlements like hers.

McElroy said that's not the case in Tampa. Local authorities want to avoid the headlines and the courtroom, she said.

McElroy sits on a committee that has been studying past conflicts between journalists and police. They're watching videos and reading reports. And they're adding to a training curriculum for all local RNC security officers.

She said she wasn't able to discuss details as it's still being developed.

"But what we've been doing is coming up with visual examples of law enforcement clashes with the media," she said. "We can show that video to law enforcement officers."

Goodman's case is one of them.

Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, said the biggest problem in 2008 was a lack of training.

With a host of different law enforcement agencies providing crowd control, there were no clear rules on how journalists were to be treated.

Kirtley suggests Tampa police have press liaisons travel with contingents of officers to handle problems as they occur. She also says police or city officials might consider credentialing some journalists, who would be allowed to remain in areas where the general public has been ordered away.

"As much as I hate the notion of the government licensing journalists, I think the lack of a credential really helped contribute to the problems," Kirtley said.

McElroy said police likely won't credential any reporters outside the convention.

Tampa police plan to meet with local media this summer, and McElroy said the hope is some of these issues can be resolved.

Others aren't sure that's possible.

"Bottom line: We're always going to be where the story is," said Duchesne Drew, who served as assistant managing editor for local news at the Minneapolis Star Tribune during the 2008 convention. "They can take the position that we're just like the general public. But then they'll have to arrest us, and they will get sued."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at or (813) 226-3433. Eric Deggans can be reached at or (727) 893-8521.