Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why the arrest of a reporter should matter to all

It's a simple principle, basic to keeping government power in check.

If authorities take you into custody, other citizens cannot interfere or impede, but they have the right to witness the arrest.

Sometimes, those witnesses are journalists. They watch on behalf of the public and independently report the circumstances.

Last year, Tim Funk was among Charlotte Observer journalists who trained on how to report on days of protests without obstructing police during Charlotte’s Democratic National Convention, where the president’s security was at stake. Not one of our journalists was detained or arrested.

In June, the Observer sent Funk to Raleigh to cover a single peaceful protest at the General Assembly. Police there handcuffed him as a “trespasser.”

It was obvious that Funk was merely doing his job as a reporter. He had Observer identification around his neck and a pad and pen in his hands.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby agreed. Last week, Willoughby dismissed charges accusing Funk of second-degree trespass and failure to disperse. Those charges were filed by the N.C. General Assembly Police.

“I saw a video of the incident and it appeared to me that he was there as a reporter, and not part of the protest. He was doing his job,” Willoughby said in an interview Friday. “If they (the General Assembly Police) had called me and showed me the video, I’d have told them what I thought.”

They didn’t. And that should disturb both you and the General Assembly.

In what ought to be the most public building in North Carolina, police did not respect the public’s right to witness officers arresting citizens.

Funk, 58, covers faith and values for the Observer. He traveled to Raleigh on June 10 to report on Charlotte-area clergy who were taking part in the “Moral Monday” protests. At least some participants from Charlotte expected to be arrested as they took their protest inside the marble-faced building where the state House and Senate meet.

Building rules prohibit disruptions or disorderly conduct. During the legislative session, nearly 1,000 protesters chose to sing, clap and pray inside the building and be arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

These arrests became a Monday routine. So routine, in fact, that the protesters who wanted to be arrested were advised to wear green armbands so they could be distinguished from crowds of onlookers and supporters.

Funk was working through those crowds, trying to locate people from our region, when he heard someone on a bull horn. It was General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver, warning protesters to disperse or face arrest.

“It was very loud in the hall, so I couldn’t hear all of what he was saying,” Funk wrote later in an account of the day. “But I made out – and wrote in my notebook – that the arrestees-to-be had 5 minutes to leave. I kept trying to talk to the (protesters) as they sang and prayed.”

Weaver then gave a two-minute warning. But it never occurred to Funk, who was wearing his Observer press badge and taking notes, that the warning applied to him.

“There was a lot of drama,” he said. “And, as a reporter, I thought my job was to capture it for Observer readers.”

A video shot by a documentary film crew captured that moment for all to see. It shows Weaver and accompanying officers closing in, not on the protesters, but on Funk.

“Chief Weaver came straight for me. … I was shocked that he intended to arrest me and was sure it was a mistake. … I remember that I kept saying, ‘I’m a reporter, I’m a reporter.’ But the chief kept coming at me, kept saying, “You’re under arrest; put your hands behind your back.”

Officers zip-tied Funk’s hands and led him to a detention center. They emptied his pockets. Took his notebooks, his briefcase, his computer. Stripped him of all identification, including his wallet and his driver’s license.

“I told every uniformed person I saw that I was a reporter, there to cover the protest, not participate in it,” Funk said. “I also asked several times whether I could call the Observer. They said no. I asked if they could call the Observer. No. At one point, my cellphone rang. I asked if they could answer it or put it to my ear. No.”

Funk was then locked in a detention cell for two hours before being taken before a magistrate and released.

Weaver was out of the office and unavailable Friday. But in telephone conversation with Observer Managing Editor Cheryl Carpenter on the night of Funk’s arrest, he said the reporter had ignored his order to disperse. He dismissed Carpenter’s explanation that Funk was a working journalist, lawfully reporting a story.

Raleigh attorney Wade Smith, hired by the Observer to represent Funk, said Friday that the reporter was clearly within his rights when he was arrested.

“He was doing his job just as fully as legislators were doing their job,” Smith said. “It seemed to me that they cast a net and caught someone they shouldn’t have. It may be that they just weren’t thinking about it.”

I’m sure that months of demonstrations, not to mention contentious political battles, have tested this police force in unprecedented ways. That may help explain how Tim Funk was treated. But it does not excuse it.

Chief Weaver and the General Assembly Police should own up to their mistake and apologize. They should also sit down with journalists who cover the legislature and discuss how both police and reporters can fulfill their responsibilities.

The Charlotte Observer and the North Carolina Press Association, representing more than 200 newspapers statewide, stand ready to meet.

“I would hope that in the future that (General Assembly Police) will recognize that a journalist has a very important role to play,” Smith said, “and that they will let journalists do their job.”

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.