A letter to Phoenix Police: Journalists are essential, not an ‘unlawful assembly’

CNN reporter Omar Jimenez is arrested during a live broadcast./ Source: CNN/Twitter

Opinion: Phoenix should recognize the essential role of the media and respect their work, just as our journalists respect the work of police.

By David Bodney

Editor’s note: On Thursday night, a downtown Phoenix protest led to pepper spray and multiple arrests by police. On Friday, Phoenix police officials distributed a memo to local news media outlets, cautioning that in the declaration of an “unlawful assembly,” everyone present is subject to arrest, “including journalists.” 

On behalf of The Arizona Republic and local television and radio stations, David Bodney, an attorney at Ballard Spahr in Phoenix, wrote this letter Friday to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Police Chief Jeri Williams. Later that day, Williams sent an apology.

Related: Police chief apologizes, says working journalists at public gatherings won’t be subject to arrest

Dear Mayor Gallego and Chief Williams:

On behalf of the News Organizations, I write to express our profound disagreement with the definition of “unlawful assembly” under Arizona law that the Public Affairs Bureau of the Phoenix Police Department communicated to its “Media Partners.” 

I also write to suggest recognition by the Phoenix Police Department of the essential role performed by the News Organizations in gathering and publishing news on matters of public concern under the First Amendment. In framing a community partnership, mutual respect and cooperation between the News Organizations and the Department are as important now as ever.

Unlawful assembly requires intent

First, it is essential to distinguish between persons who cover protests and those who participate in protests.  As a matter of Arizona law, “unlawful assembly” requires assembly by two or more persons “with the intent to engage in conduct constituting a riot. …”  A.R.S. §13-2902.A.1. 

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