April Knight began her first career, which was journalism, while she was a student at the University of the Virgin Islands. Many years later she writes from experience as she establishes her second career as a law student at Georgetown University.
It is with great pride in her many achievements that the Source republishes Knight’s first article accepted and published by the American Criminal Law Review in May.
While the push back against the legitimate press in the U.S. Virgin Islands cannot begin to compare with the virulent, violent attacks suffered by reporters in the wider arena, we have had mild attempts made to curtail our access, and even one incident of physical intimidation and property damage.
In November of 1996 then Sen. Adelbert M. Bryan seized a camera from the hands of a local journalist and smashed it on the floor of the Senate chambers. Eventually, Bryan was found guilty of destruction of property and his appeal to have the conviction reversed failed.
A year before Bryan’s appeal was denied, he pushed senators to require reporters to jump through hoops to obtain credentials issued by the Senate in order to have access to the “media gallery,” which was and is nothing more than the first few rows of seats in the Legislature’s public seating area. An uproar from some media members quickly ended the demands, and rightfully so as Knight points out in her legal academic paper: “Journalists do not need credentials to perform press functions in a public space where they have the right to be.”
Sadly, public officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands have other ways of thwarting the press’s attempts to do its job – stonewalling being one of them. A book could be written on the number of requests that have been made under the U.S. Virgin Islands public records act. The other is not returning repeated phone calls or emails from journalists, despite a host of paid public information officers working for agencies.
Hardly as dramatic as the cases cited in the following report, the corrosive effect on the community and the country remains undeniable.
In May 2020, police arrested Andrea Sahouri, a reporter from The Des Moines Register, while she was covering a Black Lives Matter demonstration. They pepper-sprayed Sahouri and zip-tied her hands behind her back, even though she repeatedly identified herself as “press” to the officers. Des Moines police claimed that Sahouri was not wearing press credentials and appeared to be participating in an unlawful assembly, and charged her with “failure to disperse and interfering with official acts.” These charges drew swift criticism as “clear violation[s] of press freedom” and part of a “disturbing pattern of abuses against journalists by police” in America.
The Des Moines protest was part of the resurgence in activism in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black Americans. These demonstrations have been followed by a wave of enhanced anti-protest legislation, which First Amendment activists have criticized as an unconstitutional means of quelling public dissent and civil disobedience movements. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law last year making camping on state property, previously a misdemeanor, a felony punishable by one to six years in prison. Between 2015 and 2019 alone, 116 state bills restricting protest rights were introduced, 23 of which became law in 15 states. These enhanced anti-protest laws produce a chilling effect for members of the Fourth Estate by increasing restrictions and dangers to journalists covering protests.
While the press enjoys First Amendment protections, states must refrain from passing redundant, vaguely drafted, enhanced anti-protest legislation that hinders journalists’ ability to perform press functions and endanger their persons. Part I of this Comment will summarize existing First Amendment protections for newsgathering. Part II describes how enhanced anti-protest laws place journalists at greater risk of arrest or attack from law enforcement and the general public. Part III argues that states should refrain from passing redundant anti-protest legislation, or, in the alternative, craft cautiously narrow proposals that would not proscribe constitutionally protected activity by the press and public.
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