NEW YORK, N.Y. — The Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund has granted New York photojournalist Douglas Higginbotham $1,000 to challenge his arrest by the New York Police Department while covering the Occupy Wall Street protest in Manhattan.
Higgingbotham reached out for help from The Deadline Club, which is the New York Chapter of The Society of Professional Journalists, after he was arrested while covering the police raid of the protesters’ encampment in Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011. The club immediately put him in touch with SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund, which provides aid to journalists facing litigation stemming from their work while reporting the news and defending the public’s right to know.
During the November raid, Higginbotham, a freelance cameraman working for TV New Zealand, climbed atop a telephone booth to get a better shot of events. Video of the incident shows that riot police told him to climb down. As he was doing so, police pulled him to the sidewalk, forcefully took his camera, handcuffed him and held him in jail for several hours. In the process, his cell phone and camera, which he describes as his “livelihood,” were broken. Higginbotham, who has been charged with disorderly conduct, is scheduled to appear in court on January 31.
“The case involving Mr. Higginbotham is not about credentials or phone booths or civil disobedience,” says SPJ President John Ensslin. “It’s clear that he was at Zuccotti Park that day to cover a demonstration, not to be part of one.”
Higginbotham, a veteran freelance photojournalist, has worked in New York for a decade covering wide-ranging events, from 9/11 to elections. His video has been used by nytimes.com, people.com, Fox News and CBS News, among others. Although similar charges stemming from the raid at Zuccotti Park were dropped more than a month ago against reporters and photographers who were on staff at many media companies, as a freelancer, Higginbotham did not have an employer to defend him. That is often the case when SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund steps in to provide support to journalists.
“The Deadline Club is ready to do whatever it can to help New York City journalists who are arrested while doing their jobs,” says J. Alex Tarquinio, the club’s president. She urges any New York journalists who believe that the police have interfered with their reporting, whether or not that resulted in an arrest or charges, to contact the club.
“We are not asking the police for any special favors for journalists. We are only asking them to follow the New York Police Department’s own guidelines for dealing with the press,” Tarquinio says. “The press passes, which the police department itself issues, cannot literally be yanked away because the officers on the scene don’t like how a story is developing.”
Ray Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, released a memo to the city’s more than 30,000 officers after the arrests in November, reminding them of their obligations not to interfere with the lawful conduct of members of the media. That memo has not resulted in the charges being dropped against Higginbotham, though. The club has heard of other instances when journalists have been prevented from covering unfolding local events that were not in the national spotlight.
The club also wishes to remind the city’s police officers that a police press pass is not a requirement for covering a police incident. Journalists have every right to cover police incidents without a press pass.
The Deadline Club has been on the front line of the controversy over the journalists who were detained or arrested while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park this fall. The club released a statement condemning the police department’s actions as soon as the news broke on November 15.
If you have been arrested while on assignment, or feel that the police hindered your reporting in any way, email us at email@example.com. If your request is an emergency, call SPJ national headquarters at (317) 927-8000. Be prepared to fax or email documentation about your legal matter. Keep us in the loop. The Deadline Club can support your request for legal aid if the incident occurred in New York.
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund also provides support for Freedom of Information requests, legislative and lobbying activities aimed at enforcing public access to government records and proceedings. The Society’s board of directors must review any requests for more than $1,000. The group meets each year in April and October.
Keep an eye on our website for updates about Higginbotham’s legal defense, as well as any other news stemming from the recent incidents in Zucotti Park, at www.deadlineclub.org.
Press Contact: J. Alex Tarquinio, president of The Deadline Club, firstname.lastname@example.org