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A Raid on the First Amendment: New York's Assault on Press Freedom | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A Raid on the First Amendment: New York's Assault on Press Freedom

The dark-of-night raid on New York City’s Zuccotti Park was not merely an assault on the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was an assault on the underpinnings of the First Amendment to the Constitution, an amendment that was outlined and approved by the First Congress of the United States at No. 26 Wall Street in 1789.

That amendment, which was written to empower citizens to challenge and prevent the rise of a totalitarian state, recognized basic freedoms that were essential to the defense of liberty. Among these are, of course, the right to speak freely and to embrace the religious ideals of one’s choice.

But from a standpoint of pushing back against power, however, the rights to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances are fundamental. And those rights were clearly assaulted early Tuesday morning.

So, too, was another right: the right to a free press.

Why does the right to a free press matter so much? Because, as the founders knew, no experiment in democracy could ever be anything more than that—an experiment—if the people don’t know what is being done in their name by those in positions of authority. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,” observed James Madison, “is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”

Nothing is more necessary in a democracy than the informing of the people, not merely to assure that they can influence the direction of government but also to assure that government does not become a threat to their livelihoods, their rights, their freedoms. The playwright Tom Stoppard captured the reality of why a free press is so very necessary in his 1978 play, “Night and Day,” where a veteran journalist explained that “people do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the dark-of-night clearance of Zuccotti Park, and police authorities barred journalists from the scene early Tuesday, the people were kept in the dark. Helicopters for television stations were grounded, most reporters were kept far from the scene in a “press pen,” a reporter for the New York Post and others who got close enough to the park to see what was happening were roughed up, and several journalists—included reporters for the New York Daily News, Associated Press and National Public Radio—were detained and arrested.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents much of Lower Manhattan and who is the senior Democrat on the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement issued with state Senator Daniel Squadron, another Manhattan Democrat, that warned: “The City’s actions to shut down OWS last night raise a number of serious civil liberties questions that must be answered.  Moving forward, how will the City respect the protesters’ rights to speech and assembly? Why was press access limited, and why were some reporters’ credentials confiscated? How will reported incidents of excessive force used by the police be addressed?”

As lawyers for the movement pressed for injunctions against the city, Nadler and Squadron argued that: “Whatever the courts rule, the City’s actions here must not be a backdoor means of ending the free exercise of protesters’ rights.”

Responding to concerns about the battering that the Constitution has taken at “Occupy” protests around the country, the union that represents journalists, the Newspaper Guild, has launched an “Occupied Journalists” Facebook page. Designed to serve as an online forum for media workers to share survival strategies and anecdotes from the streets, the page was started when Guild-CWA organizer Sara Steffens says the union “started hearing a lot of reports from all over the country from journalists running into trouble covering the protests.”

Unions and press freedom groups need to step up, as do elected officials who swear oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies “foreign and domestic.”

Referring to the clearing of the treatment of protesters and journalists in New York, Nadler and Squadron said: “Irrespective of this incident, OWS is now bigger than Zuccotti Park, and no one has the power to silence this national movement.”

Let’s hope they are right and that the people are no longer “kept in the dark” by officials who want the freedom to operate without the oversight and accountability that a free press must provide.

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