Charges Dropped Against Journalist who Photographed Arrest of Protesters

Police unjustly arresting journalists and photographers during political protests is an ongoing issue. This proved to be the case for Cheryl Biren when she was on assignment in Philadelphia.
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While covering a protest at the Army Experience Center in Philadelphia, PA, Cheryl Biren, on assignment for, was arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy and failure to disperse while taking photographs of protesters being arrested.

Philly Civil Affairs Police surround

reporter, Cheryl Biren

On January 13, 2010, four months after the arrest, the Philadelphia District Attorney's office withdrew all charges. Biren's attorney, Paul Hetnzecker warns, however, of a "very dangerous development involving first amendment rights."

In response to the withdrawal of charges, Hetznecker explained, "Based on my investigation it was clear that she was not in a position that they claimed she was and therefore should not have been arrested. We now have clear evidence of the police overreaching in arresting Cheryl Biren."

Describing the evidence, Hetnzecker pointed out,

In her particular case she was simply there as a reporter as she claimed all along. She was taking photographs of the event in what is clearly displayed on the police video taken at the time. It bears that fact out very clearly that she is there taking photographs and, as any reporter would, gathering information about the event. So, I think once the DA's office reviewed the tapes they also came to the same conclusion and I give them credit for doing so and withdrawing the charges.

Photo taken by Cheryl Biren shortly

before she was arrested.

Hetznecker added, "Now as to what happens with the rest of my clients as we move forward, we are in the process of reviewing further discovery that has been received and I don't want to further comment about that until I've reviewed it and discussed it with my clients."

Asked to comment on the arrest and media coverage of it, Noam Chomsky, in an interview on my radio show, said, "... it shouldn't be allowed to go on and it is the job of the media and citizen organizations to try to curb such practices."

When asked if the District Attorney had anything to say with respect to the withdrawal of charges, Attorney Hetznecker replied,

I think their position was that they reviewed the evidence and based on the evidence and the confirmation that she is, in fact, a reporter - that was enough for them to withdraw charges. What went into their thinking about that I did not really inquire nor did they share, but I think that the evidence based on the review of the video speaks for itself that she is clearly there as a reporter and she is covering the event as a photojournalist.

Police unjustly arresting media and photographers during political protests is an ongoing issue. Hetznecker warns of this "dangerous development" saying,

I think this has become a pattern throughout the country that individuals who attempt to independently document an event that is governed or controlled by police action are going to be subject to arrest, unfortunately false arrest, and accusations of involvement or participation in the particular demonstration is an issue.

He continued,

I think that is an unfortunate development that has been a pattern and practice that has been adopted by many municipalities throughout the country whether it's in Pittsburgh or in New York during the convention or here in Philly in the conventions in 2000, there seems to be a real effort on the part of police and authorities to eliminate or to discredit or to undermine the independent media documenting an event involving a political protest. It's unfortunately the trend in a very dangerous development involving first amendment rights not only of protesters but of those who are trying to convey the coverage and convey the message the protesters bring.

On the Rob Kall Bottom-Up Radio Show, attorney Hetznecker asked Noam Chomsky, "...Given all... the accounts... chronicled by journalists of the federal government and local authorities' attempt to undermine dissent in this country, Professor Chomsky, do you have a comment about that development and what you've seen over the course of the last 30 or 40 years... with respect to those events and the war on dissent so to speak?"

Professor Chomsky replied,

Well, the war on dissent is permanent. No power system wants to tolerate dissent. I mean that's kind of like a sociopolitical universal... Now, how power systems respond to this depends on their nature. Internally, to the United States there has always been government and corporate efforts to block dissent and the history is pretty violent and brutal. The United States has probably the most violent labor history of any industrial society.

During the 60s and 70s as you know, I'm sure, a secret government program, COINTELPRO, which iniitally targeted - it was an FBI run program, a national political police program that targeted originally, of course, communists, but it expanded into the 60s to include the entire new left, the black movement, the women's movements and so on and it was no joke. It was finally terminated under court order in the mid 70s, but then other forms develop and as you describe power systems learn. They learn from what has worked and what hasn't worked and they adapt the tactics, they make it more sophisticated. I think what you describe now is bad, shouldn't be tolerated.

Later in the radio show, attorney Paul Hetznecker added,

... doing a survey of what has happened over the course of the last few years, it's important to note some of the things that have occurred in large demonstrations that infringe upon the right of the press to independently document the events as they unfold. Pittsburgh in September in protests against the G20 Summit journalists were arrested. In fact at the University of Pittsburgh, it was documented that there were several student journalists that were rounded up in conjunction with the protesters and were arrested despite the fact that they had identified themselves as journalists.

Likewise, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, several journalists were arrested in 2008 and most notably in the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, St. Paul, where Amy Goodman and her crew were subjects of an arrest, a false arrest, by the authorities there. And, again, I think there is a trend of marginalizing challenges to power in the public domain and clearly where there is a rather large scale demonstration, the police seem to be unfettered in their decisions to arrest independent journalists and charge them and oftentimes seize their film.

Cheryl Biren expressed gratitude for Mr. Hetznecker and his "passion for first amendment rights." Adding, "I'm also glad for my decision to not accept an earlier offer by the court for a chance at "rehab" for my "behavior." The mainstream media really should wake up to this issue as it will likely arrive at their doorstep in due time. In fact, there have been some instances that have been met with little attention."

Biren asserts that,

Independent media continues to grow and it's important that we exert our rights and not allow ourselves to be intimidated by a heavy hand. That said, it is true that 'you can beat the rap, but you can't beat the ride' and this was one ride I could have done without. I'm eager to go back to where I left off which was reporting on the arrests at the Army Experience Center with a renewed appreciation for what protesters are up against when standing by their convictions.

The six protesters whose arrests were being documented by Biren still face trial this Spring. Attorney Hetznecker will also be representing them. He declined to comment further on the pending case.

In some locales after police abuse like this has occurred, the ACLU has negotiated with the police to establish clearly defined policies so that it doesn't happen again.

Regarding such efforts, Hetznecker explained that

Oftentimes, what is being sought is an injunction and/or a declaratory judgment regarding the police activity and those are very difficult to obtain regarding a broad pattern of behavior, but certainly it is something that I think is going to emerge again over and over and we see the press being subject to these false arrests and claims of criminality simply because they are present and covering and documenting in effect a political event.

Hetznecker then placed this in a historical perspective,

I think it is something that is a fertile ground for future litigation, but it's not something that hasn't been addressed in the past. It has, historically, but that is true of the constant struggle for civil liberties. It is something that is an ongoing battle and each new generation and each new police technique and new advancement in technology has to be confronted by a forceful response in declaration of liberty and freedom. Simply because the police used these same techniques in the 60s and 70s and it was resolved in one way or the other in the courts doesn't mean it's not going to rear it's ugly head again and we have to respond in kind.

Concluding, Hetznecker noted,

I think it's something that is an ongoing battle and certainly a battleground that will go from the streets to the courtroom once the dust settles and I'm not talking about this particular case necessarily, but the overall issue of whether or not we have a serious intrusion into the first amendment rights of the press by the police in their attempts to exclude and eliminate independent coverage of events.

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