NYPD sued over denial of press credentials

by Sewell Chan, City Room/New York Times

In the ever-shifting media landscape of 2008, who, exactly, is a journalist?

That question is at the heart of a lawsuit filed against the Police Department on Wednesday on behalf of three men — Rafael Martínez Alequin, Ralph E. Smith and David Wallis — who say that they were unfairly denied press passes because they work for online or nontraditional news outlets.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, asserts that the three men were denied press credentials in 2007 “with little explanation or opportunity for appeal,” and that the system for issuing press credentials is “inconsistent and constitutionally flawed.”

“The system of granting press credentials in New York City has run amok and needs to be changed immediately,” Norman Siegel, the civil-liberties lawyer, who is representing the three men in the complaint, said in a phone interview. “The right of a free press is a cornerstone of our constitutional system, and it’s a right that must be respected.”

Gabriel Taussig, chief of the administrative law division at the city’s Law Department, said in a statement:

The issuance of N.Y.P.D. press passes strikes an appropriate balance between First Amendment concerns and public safety. We just received the complaint and are investigating the plaintiff’s concerns thoroughly.

The Police Department issues two kinds of credentials: working press cards, for a “full-time employee of a news-gathering organization covering spot or breaking news on a regular basis such as robbery scenes, fires, homicides, train wrecks, bombings, plane crashes, where there are established police or fire lines at the scene,” and press identification cards, for journalists who are “employed by a legitimate news organization” but who do “not normally cover spot or breaking news events.” (The language is from the city’s official rules and regulations.)

The working press card ostensibly allows the journalist to cross police lines at emergencies and at nonemergency public events, like parades and demonstrations; the press identification card is “issued as a courtesy” but does not carry such privileges. Each card must be renewed annually.

The three men have varied journalistic practices.

Mr. Wallis is the founder of featurewell.com, a syndication service that provides news coverage to 1,500 publication worldwide, including The Guardian, The Irish Examiner, The Australian Financial Review and The New Zealand Herald. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Wallis had a press identification card off and on from 1994 until August 2007, when his petition to obtain the card again was denied without explanation.

Mr. Smith is published of The Guardian Chronicle, a Web site for black law enforcement workers. He has been a public information officer for the city’s Correction Department since 1988, and had a press credential from 1996 until January 2007, when he application to renew the credential was denied. Despite several attempts to get a written explanation for the denial, Mr. Smith has not received one, the suit says.

The case of Mr. Martínez Alequin, a longtime City Hall gadfly, has already been chronicled in the press. He published The Brooklyn Free Press from 1983 to 2001, when he ceased publication after the death of his wife. Then he launched an online publication, The New York City Free Press, in 2003, and began a related blog, Your Free Press, in 2007. He had a working press card from 1986 to 2000 and again from 2005 to 2006.

In May 2007, his application to renew it was denied, and from April to June of that year, the suit says, he was barred from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s news conferences in the Blue Room at City Hall because he lacked a press credential. Mr. Martínez Alequin has been a frequent critic of the mayor; he has since been allowed to attend news conference, but has not been called upon to ask questions.

The lawsuit asserts that the Police Department violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of freedom of speech and of the press; the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law and equal protection; and the State Constitution’s guarantee of press freedom. The suit asks the court to find the regulations governing press badges to be “unconstitutionally vague”; to bar the Police Department from denying press credentials “in the same manner they have done to the plaintiffs therein”; and to award compensatory and punitive damages.

article originally published at http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/nypd-is-sued-over-denial-of-press-c....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey