Journalists Caught in Legal Jeopardy While Covering Occupation of Bank

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sc-bankIt is not a secret that, in their endeavor to bring the world their story, journalists expose themselves to risks similar to those which confront the individuals they are covering. Look no further than the journalists who have been kidnapped and murdered covering war and other activities in the Middle East.

At the same time, while covering a war zone, one has to know there are risks and accept them.  Covering the occupation of a bank, perhaps less so.

But that is precisely what two photojournalists face who claim they were working, in the capacity of being journalists.

Alex Darocy and Bradley Stuart Allen were among eleven people charged with two felony counts of vandalism and conspiracy, and two misdemeanor counts of trespassing. The charges stem from the takeover of the building at 75 River St. in Santa Cruz late last year.

They have pled not guilty, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported on March 9.  According to their attorneys, they have done work for a number of outlets.

The Sentinel reports, “Allen has worked as a freelance photojournalist covering social issues for more than a decade… His attendance of Occupy protests in Santa Cruz were in the capacity of a photojournalist, with the sole purpose of documenting events through his photography, he said.  Likewise, [Attorney] Girgarjian says his client was documenting a news event.”

“Alex is an established photojournalist and we’re in the position that he was there in that capacity,” his attorney said.

Mr. Allen and his attorney have reached out to the National Press Photographers Association, of which Mr. Allen is a member.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the organization, told the paper that he “has been dealing with similar situations around the country as dozens of journalists have been swept up in mass arrests at protests.”

“I think the normal tension between the police and the press has been exacerbated by the Occupy movement,” he said, adding that the organization is hoping the court will dismiss these charges.

That group issued a statement last week, and they are “asking a California judge to reconsider felony charges against a freelance photographer arrested while covering the Occupy Santa Cruz protests.”

The charges against Mr. Allen “must be weighed against his First Amendment right to cover a newsworthy event”, the Reporters Committee-NPPA letter told California Superior Court Judge Ariadne J. Symons.

The group specifically asked the judge, “in the interest of justice,” that the charges against Allen be dismissed or, at a minimum, that the felony charges be dropped.

A court “considering punishments for exercise of the right to gather news should weigh the public interest in obtaining information against competing interests,” the letter argued. “And if the First Amendment freedom of the press means anything, surely it encompasses a journalist’s right to be free from the threat of serious criminal charges for simply reporting on the activities of those who did engage in the alleged unlawful conduct.”

“The fact that a photographer, or any journalist, can be arrested and charged with a felony simply for being present to report on unarguably newsworthy events is beyond troubling: it’s chilling,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The constitutional right to convey information overwhelmingly in the public interest should be given considerable weight when considered against state and local trespassing statutes.”

As the letter noted: “A free, unrestrained news media are essential to informing the enlightened public opinion that is the hallmark of democracy.”

Mr. Allen told KPFA Evening news on Sunday, “I had no idea that there was going to be an occupied building. I covered this occupation as a breaking news event.”

“District Attorneys Bob Lee and Rebekah Webb [Young] are now arguing that my coverage of the events, alone, and publishing them on my website and Indybay.org, in and of itself, was an act to promote trespass. That my coverage alone of a news event was a conspiracy to promote trespass. So they are now criminalizing media,” he said.

According to KPFA, late last week, the Judge dismissed the vandalism charge, but the judge found that enough evidence exists to try Allen and codefendant Alex Darocy on charges of conspiracy and trespass.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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26 thoughts on “Journalists Caught in Legal Jeopardy While Covering Occupation of Bank”

  1. Mr Obvious

    It is not uncommon to limit access to the press. It is done at disaster sites on a regular basis. Lets not forget that we are getting a little fast and loose these days with the term “journalist”. Anyone with an internet connection could be a “journalist”.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    You’re overly complicating the issue. The one question is whether the individual trespassed in order to commit a crime or whether they were attempting to cover a story as it broke.

  3. Neutral

    [i]the National Press Photographers Association, of which Mr. Allen is a member.[/i]

    Absent a valid press ID there is no possible way to distinguish them from the protesters. So, were either of them carrying or wearing any form of document showing they were members of the press? If not, why not?

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Neutral: What is a valid press ID? Most press IDs are either issued by the place of employment or by an event. So right now I could print up a press ID from the Vanguard. In past, I had one that was issued by the State Assembly for use in the legislature.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “I’m not commenting on this, because I would prefer not to see the case tried in the vanguard. The judge and jury will sort the facts out. “

    It has never stopped you before.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    I don’t feel as if I have enough facts to comment here. It is not clear to me what exactly the defendants are accused of doing. For instance, were they inside a building and asked to leave, but refused to do so? The following statement is what gives me pause:
    [quote]According to KPFA, late last week, the Judge dismissed the vandalism charge, but the judge found that enough evidence exists to try Allen and codefendant Alex Darocy on charges of conspiracy and trespass.[/quote]

  7. E Roberts Musser

    From [url]http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2012/03/18/18709596.php[/url]
    [quote]BRADLEY ALLEN: Count 1, a felony. Conspiracy to commit a crime, in violation of Penal Code Section 182(a)(1).
    Count 2 [which has been dismissed], a felony. Felony Vandalism, in violation of Penal Code Section 594(b)(1).
    Count 3, a misdemeanor. Trespass by entering and occupying, in violation of Penal Code Section 602(M).
    Count 4, a misdemeanor. Trespass and refusing to leave private property, in violation of Penal Code Section 602(O). [/quote]

    Note count #4 – “refusing to leave private property”

  8. E Roberts Musser

    From [url]http://santacruz.patch.com/articles/editor-s-notebook-journalist-gets-off-vandalism-charge[/url]
    [quote]A lot of people have asked why Santa Cruz Patch didn’t come out in support of the journalists, and the simple answer is that one of them wasn’t acting as a journalist, but was an active protester.

    I know nothing about the other, Bradley Stuart Allen. I’ve seen the photos printed on the IndyBay website, which were used by police to make cases against the other protesters. I didn’t see him the night of the takeover.

    However, I watched the other “journalist,” Alex Darocy, commit acts of protest, not journalism.

    I was outside the bank building the night of the takeover and watched Darocy put up cardboard to block the windows. He saw me snapping a picture of him and ducked away.

    Darocy claims to have been in the bank covering the illegal occupation, but there are two things wrong with that. First, a journalist covering an event would never be taping or nailing coverings over windows. The minute someone does something like that, they are a participant, not a journalist.

    Second, at a meeting inside the bank, the occupiers asked journalists to leave, according to freelancer Alex Hubner, who was covering the occupation for Patch. Hubner deferred to the wishes of the occupiers.

    At a meeting outside the county courthouse a few days after the bank occupiers left the building, Darocy, who was participating as an occupier, tried to stop Patch freelancer Daniel Wootan from taking videos.

    Darocy stood threateningly in front of Wootan’s camera, getting closer and closer and blocking him off. Then, Darocy raised his hand and asked the general assembly members if they wanted their meeting recorded by the freelance journalist. They asked him to stop recording. Someone else at the meeting chastized Darocy for harassing Wootan.

    These are not the actions of a journalist, but a member of the movement whose priority is to fan its flames, not to record them for the rest of the world to see[/quote]

  9. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine:

    So the standard for a preliminary hearing is probable cause. That is extremely low. In hearings I have attended, Judge’s will dismiss if there is no accusation of a crime. For example, in a multi-defendant case, perhaps one of the defendants is not accused of committing one of the crimes.

    So there is no evidence and no accusation that the reporter engaged in Vandalism.

    All it would take to hold him to answer to count 1 would be an assertion by law enforcement that he was involved in a conspiracy. That is how low the standard is.

  10. Mr Obvious

    I was just on the National Press Photographers Association website. This is a quote from the membership page,
    [quote]Professional membership in the NPPA is open to all individuals who are working or aspiring towards working in the field of visual journalism. This includes those who work or freelance in photography, multimedia, audio, video, design, editing, producing, teaching, writing, reporting, or visual journalism on the Web. Members of the NPPA may work for an organization or institution, or be self-employed.[/quote]
    It takes five minutes to become “journalist”. You don’t actually have to be a journalist. You can want to be a journalist and join this group. David actually made one good point in an earlier post, anyone can print a press pass. So now anyone can print a press pass and anyone can be a member of the NPPA. [i]Vuala[/i], full fledged member of the press with nothing more than an online application, a printer, and a camera. Who doesn’t have all prerequisites to be a member of the press?

  11. AdRemmer

    DG, in light of your commencement to lay down standards…

    [quote]I never saw the article from the Patch (and I was looking for more information), that certainly paints the incident a bit differently [/quote]

    [quote]You’re overly complicating the issue. The one question is whether the individual trespassed in order to commit a crime or whether they were attempting to cover a story as it broke. [/quote]

    THE ONE QUESTION, Really?

    Does your story even mention that you contacted a DA’s representative?

    Might that mean you didn’t even try or just left it out? Regardless, you appear to be silent about it, for some reason.

    ERM noted: [quote]From your coverage, a reader would have surmised that these journalists did nothing but stand by and photograph the scene. But that was a misleading characterization[/quote]

    Again!

    MO, one has to wonder which is lower: the standard for being a journalist, Prelim Hrgs. [probable cause], or as clearly pointed out by ERM — those of the Davis Vanguard stories?

  12. Mr Obvious

    Elaine,
    Thanks for the story from The Patch. It’s weird what a little balance can show. Read the comments from The Patch story, sounds familiar. I was actually a little surprised at the reaction of the readers. I guess Santa Cruz isn’t as crazy as thought.

  13. David M. Greenwald

    I never saw the article from the Patch (and I was looking for more information), that certainly paints the incident a bit differently if the report was actually participating in the event. To me that would be the critical distinction between covering the event and committing a crime. If it has merely been he trespassed on the property, I think that would be a bad precedent.

    Mr. Obvious, I think you raise good points as well about the threshold for being a journalist. To me, if a person is acting a journalist acts – observing and covering the event, that is one thing. If they are a participant, the press pass should not be a get out of jail free card.

  14. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Elaine:

    So the standard for a preliminary hearing is probable cause. That is extremely low. In hearings I have attended, Judge’s will dismiss if there is no accusation of a crime. For example, in a multi-defendant case, perhaps one of the defendants is not accused of committing one of the crimes.

    So there is no evidence and no accusation that the reporter engaged in Vandalism.

    All it would take to hold him to answer to count 1 would be an assertion by law enforcement that he was involved in a conspiracy. That is how low the standard is.[/quote]

    You are not addressing my point. The point was that it appears that there was some basis upon which to charge the journalists. Whether they will ultimately be found guilty of these charges is entirely another matter. From your coverage, a reader would have surmised that these journalists did nothing but stand by and photograph the scene. But that was a misleading characterization IMO. You failed to tell “the rest of the story”, which I attempted to do by showing what was in “The Patch”. In fact, the journalists in question have been accused of far more than just standing by. They have been accused of essentially actively participating in the protest.

    This is precisely where I have a problem with some Vanguard coverage, where omissions are made so that “facts” fit a preconceived agenda in favor of protestors…

  15. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Elaine,
    Thanks for the story from The Patch. It’s weird what a little balance can show. Read the comments from The Patch story, sounds familiar. I was actually a little surprised at the reaction of the readers. I guess Santa Cruz isn’t as crazy as thought.[/quote]

    Yes, I want the full story, not a sanitized version to fit a particular viewpoint…

  16. David M. Greenwald

    “You are not addressing my point. The point was that it appears that there was some basis upon which to charge the journalists. “

    Actually I’m precisely addressing your point by pointing out that the basis can be as limited as someone making the accusation. Now if the Patch reporter is correct, there could be a great deal more evidence. But holding one to answer in a preliminary hearing is an [u][b]astonishingly[/b][/u] low threshold.

  17. 91 Octane

    vanguard: “It has never stopped you before.”

    This is true. My last comment was Miss Lye ought to shut her mouth until she has facts in hand.

  18. JustSaying

    “But that is precisely what two photojournalists face who claim they were working, in the capacity of being journalists.

    You’re overly complicating the issue. The one question is whether the individual trespassed in order to commit a crime or whether they were attempting to cover a story as it broke.”

    David, here is another case where you gone off half-assed with an under-researched batch of unverified information to expose how legal authorities did the wrong thing. The questions about press freedom and what “journalists” can do while covering events, things that would be lawbreaking when non-jouurnalists are doing them are, in fact, very complicated.

    It’s interesting that the photojournalist association provided such a canned, lukewarm letter and only pleaded for leniency for one of the two alleged journalists (Allen, the one who paid his dues). Another blog claimed that four of the 11 who broke into the vacant building and held it for three days were there as journalists. It won’t be long until all of us can claim to be journalists.

    The charges suggest that the police observed the two doing things other than just taking pictures. And if police instruct eleven people to leave private property they’ve broken into, even real journalists better obey or be ready to find themselves in the pokey along with everyone else.

    “Actually I’m precisely addressing your point by pointing out that the basis can be as limited as someone making the accusation. Now if the Patch reporter is correct, there could be a great deal more evidence. But holding one to answer in a preliminary hearing is an astonishingly low threshold.”

    How did the low threshold to hold someone for preliminary hearing get to be the issue here? This might always be true, but what’s it got to do with this case?

    We’ll see soon enough if authorities think their cases against these two are low threshold ones. “Real journalists” who are doing their jobs sometimes end up with such charges dropped.

  19. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Actually I’m precisely addressing your point by pointing out that the basis can be as limited as someone making the accusation. Now if the Patch reporter is correct, there could be a great deal more evidence. But holding one to answer in a preliminary hearing is an astonishingly low threshold.[/quote]

    IMO you only told half the story, leaving out the very important point that these journalists were accused of doing far more than just reporting on what they saw. To omit such important information is to conveniently ignore facts that don’t fit a preconceived agenda, and hurts the Vanguard’s credibility. Had you told your readers that these reporters were accused of participating in the protest, but in your opinion it appears such accusations were weak and a cover-up for what was likely an attempt to shut down coverage of the Occupy movement, it would have been far more believable. What made me do the research is that your version sounded so unlikely/improbable – in other words not very believable…

  20. David M. Greenwald

    “IMO you only told half the story, leaving out the very important point that these journalists were accused of doing far more than just reporting on what they saw. “

    I did only tell half the story, usually that is all you can tell in the initial stages. The presumption was that we would get a fuller explanation when the case is put on. I can tell you why I overlooked the Patch article, normally Patch doesn’t do original reporting, they reprint other stories. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, clearly if the reporter participated then he’s not being a reporter. But it is a bit ironic to hear the Patch editor standing up for journalism when Patch really doesn’t practice journalism generally.

  21. Phil Coleman

    A comment has been made in the context of a preliminary hearing that a simple assertion by the prosecution is sufficient for binding a defendant over for trial. That is simply not true. A defendant, and counsel, can contest any and all aspects of the prosecution’s charges, and offer counter-evidence in support.

    A preliminary hearing is, in effect, a mini-trial and intended to reserve the formal court docket for only those cases that fully meet the probable cause standard.

  22. David M. Greenwald

    If I said a simple assertion by the prosecution was sufficient (I don’t believe I did), I was mistaken, but an accusation by a witness is. It is not a mini-trial in the sense that a criminal trial requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a preliminary hearing requires probable cause.

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