BATON ROUGE – A television reporter’s federal lawsuit alleging that he was illegally confined and his First Amendment rights trampled while at a crime scene in Baton Rouge last year could help foster better relations between police and the press, the legal defense director of a journalists’ advocacy group said on Thursday.
The federal lawsuit against the Baton Rouge Police Department alleging damages for malicious prosecution, improper confinement and humiliation was filed in March by WBRZ reporter Brett Buffington in U.S. District Court for the Louisiana Middle District. Buffington and a producer, Trey Schmaltz, came on the scene of a burglary investigation last May in the early-morning hours, and Buffington was later booked on charges of interfering with and intimidating a police officer, according to The Advocate newspaper.
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Louisiana Record that in many instances, the only way to change policies in the wake of disputes between the police and press is through court actions.
“You need to force police to contemplate on how they interact with reporters,” Leslie said.
According to the Reporters Committee website, courts generally give police the benefit of the doubt if they interfere with newsgathering activities while trying to protect the public’s safety or dealing with a clear emergency. But reporters do have legal protections against “arbitrary” interference, the website states.
In the Baton Rouge case, the police argued that the journalists’ picture taking and refusal to immediately leave the scene caused a distraction that could have put officers’ lives in danger, The Advocate reported. Buffington was given a criminal summons and allowed to leave, but he was rearrested and taken into custody after he told a police officer, “Hope you enjoy the rest of your career.”
After Buffington’s release, however, no misdemeanor or felony charges were ever filed against him. Leslie said it was very common for contrived charges to be dropped after such press-police disputes.
“They might think up some charge, but they know that if they say this person interfered with police activities, the judge would laugh them out of the room,” Leslie said.
He stressed that reporters have the same rights as members of the public when they are out in the field doing First Amendment-protected activities. And when lawsuits are filed and police departments have to pay out for damages or come out on the losing end of a verdict, reforms that help protect reporters’ rights in the future are more likely to occur, Leslie said.
“They have been common over the years,” he said of lawsuits filed by reporters against police departments. “I don’t know that there’s a rash of them now, though,” Leslie added, indicating that such lawsuits are more likely to be filed after political rallies – when the press, candidates and law enforcement are on the scene during charged atmospheres.
He said lawsuits can lead to pressure for better police training, and a better understanding between officers and journalists.
“We’ve seen police departments say they do training (on how to deal with the media), but I’d be surprised that they do any…," Leslie said. "Training is insufficient at best.”
The Washington-based Reporters Committee provides free legal resources to journalists while advocating for First Amendment protections and freedom of information.