Law, History Support Arrested Reporters

Octavio Gomez

Octavio Gomez in “One Nation With News for All.” (Derek Reynolds/Newseum)

Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly, the Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters who were arrested Aug. 13 in Ferguson, Mo., while covering the bloody protests in that St. Louis suburb, have history and the law on their side.

In a first-person account of his arrest that was published Aug. 14 in the Washington Post, Lowery recounted a troubling story of police harassment that sounded eerily similar to a landmark case 33 years ago involving a photographer for Los Angeles-based La Opinión newspaper and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Lowery described in chilling detail how he was slammed into a soda machine and put in plastic cuffs. Both he and Reilly were later released without explanation.

“Initially, both Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and I were asked for identification,” Lowery said about the encounter inside a nearby McDonald’s. “I was wearing my lanyard, but Ryan asked why he had to show his ID. They didn’t press the point, but one added that if we called 911, no one would answer.

“Moments later, the police reemerged, telling us that we had to leave. I pulled my phone out and began recording video. An officer with a large weapon came up to me and said, ‘Stop recording.’”

In 1981, Mexican-American photographer Octavio Gomez was covering immigration protests for the influential Spanish-language newspaper when INS agents took his camera and press pass, demanding proof that he was in the country legally. Gomez, a naturalized citizen, recalled back then that he felt alone, angry and with tears in his eyes as agents mocked him and his green card.

What Gomez did next had repercussions that affect journalists today.

In the first lawsuit ever filed on behalf of Spanish-language media, La Opinión and Gomez sued the INS, citing harassment and suppression of their right to report and publish news. In 1985, they were awarded nearly $300,000 in damages — a victory for journalists’ right to do their jobs without interference. The case is highlighted in the Newseum’s exhibit “One Nation With News for All.”

“We do not want our [reporters and photographers] to be intimidated by immigration officials, whether they are legal foreign aliens, as Mr. Gomez is, or native Americans,” the newspaper’s editor and publisher, Ignacio E. Lozano Jr., said after the victory.

Washington Post executive editor Martin D. Baron released a statement Wednesday, calling Ferguson police’s behavior “wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.”

History backs him up.

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