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.


Anonymous said...

Rick, I agree this arrest was out of bounds. But that was not my initial thought when reading your post. The Charlotte Observer shows the mugshots of every arrest in Mecklenburg County. Many people that you have pictured have also been proved innocent in a court of law. But these people may have lost a job over their picture being displayed in your paper. If you are going to report and write a blog after one of your employees has been vindicated, why don't you do it for the other innocent people your paper has publicly shamed?

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. I'm a conservative and tend to side with the actions taken by the GOP legislature. In addition, I have no problem arresting people that are creating issue as a way to make their point (Moral Monday crowd). However, the press covering the event, regarding of which side it favors, should NEVER be restricted in doing their job. Hope he sues them for their actions!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like TIM FUNK, got a taste of what the AVERAGE BLACK MALE in America goes through DAILY.

It's not very fun walking in someone else's shoes.

The NC General Assembly Police were completely out of order and Tim should have never been placed under arrest.

Jim said...

I wonder how greatly the prevalence of "advocacy journalism" has contributed to law enforcement's view of reporters? There are reporters who regard anyone in uniform -- USMC, Salvation Army, FD, PD,. . . -- as an enemy.

Anonymous said...

An order to disperse means just that, it doesn't mean "disperse unless you are a reporter, then you don't have to."

Wiley Coyote said...

After watching the video, I agree that it appears Funk was singled out for arrest. There were numerous other reporters with camera crews there, although some distance back from the front of the crowd.

However, two points.

One, we don't know what Funk was doing leading up to his arrest; what kind of interaction was he having with protesters, etc.

Secondly, just because Funk is a reporter doesn't put him above the law.

Having a badge around your neck and a pad won't allow you just waltz right into the White House.

Anonymous said...

Wow what sanctimonious claptrap. May we touch the hem of your garment, Lord Thames?

As 6:24 writes, "disperse means disperse". You can cover a concert without being in the moshpit yourself.

And you wonder why your stock has lost 95% of its value.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Rick! You win the Making-A-Mountain-Out-Of-A-Molehill Award for editorials this year.

What a bunch of claptrap. Your feeble attempt to make some sort of journalistic martyr out of Tim Funk falls flat on its face.

Just because someone works for the media and is "just doing his job" does not make him exempt from legally given orders by a law enforcement agency.

Better luck next time.

Anonymous said...

Yes, let's exempt reporters (particularly liberal ones) from any laws that the rest of us "little people" have to abide by.

And while we're at it, let's grant them an exemption from Obamacare as well. If it's good enough for the rest of our governing agencies and certain favored corporations, it certainly must be good enough for members of the liberal media---but only the liberal ones.

kantstanzya said...

Wow. Another in the Observer's daily pathetic attempt to make martyrs out of the people trying to disrupt the elected legislature from doing its work.Oh those evil Wascallly Wepublicans and the storm troopers who watch over the legislature building.

Compare these knuckleheads with the Tea Party which always demonstrated lawfully. These people are intentionally trying to get arrested and I am sure the Capitol Police are tired of it. They asked people to disperse and Funk didn't. He spent 2 whole hours in a cell before the charges were dropped. Maybe he should pen a Nelson Mandela like book on the trials and tribulations he has endured for his cause? Oh the humanity!

The Observer has been daily misrepresenting everything the legislature has enacted. They have always been left leaning but lately have become little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party in trying to influence future elections. But this Tim Funk nonsense still isn't their best effort. I give that award to the editorial hit job they reran as a preemptive strike against obscure Cherie Berry who was mentioned as possible opponent to Kay Hagan. The N.C.liberal press actually spent time examining and condemning the job she has done inspecting the elevators! I try to keep up with the news but I don't recall there being a rash of elevator disasters in the many years she has been responsible for inspections.

I would think at some point Rick Thames, Taylor Batten and the rest of the crew would be embarrassed and have a little shame at what they put out every day. As Woody Allen might say... the Observer is becoming "a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham."

Anonymous said...

Selectively editing your Video sure makes him Funk look innocent.

However - unless you release the entire unedited Video - You have ABSOLUTELY NO CREDIBILITY.


Anonymous said...

Reporters don't disperse!

In my generation there are two iconic photos that attests to both the right and need for reporters to be present…always.

On May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, the National Guard just didn't order students protesting the Vietnam War to disperse; it charged the crowd. It bayoneted students. And then it killed four of them with pistol and rifle fire.

THE PHOTO, May 4th 1970
And then the Pulitzer winning photo by John Filo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller.

That incident and the photo changed America. It changed a President. It strengthened the gun rights argument that private citizens have a need to protect itself from the state.

In the midst of a 1963 Spring-long Civil Rights demonstrations, police began clearing streets with water hoses and dogs. Every news photo was compelling, but the one of a police dog clinging to the stomach of a protester went around the world. The organizers were fighting for something in Alabama, but because of the coverage got a Presidential speech on national TV, a March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

THE PHOTO, May 4th 1963
Journalist's Bill Hudson's photo of Walter Gadsden being held by police while a dog attacks him was on the front page of the New York Times, May 4, 1963. It even had an effect on our image in countries where U.S. policy was to show America as humanely better.

Yes, both events are tied to a May 4th. Seven years apart. What it shows is that the need for journalist on the scene never ends. There will be more May 4ths and there will be a need for reports to move freely.

Bolyn McClung

Robert Maier said...

I was disturbed by a story today covering reporter Tim Funk's arrest in the Raleigh, North Carolina Capitol Building last June 10. As English Pages editor of, I am very familiar with illegal treatment of journalists.

I work with a dozen journalists from Afghanistan who have been threatened, beaten, given death sentences for their writings, and jailed for months. This violence was perpetrated by both government authorities and terrorist organizations like the Taliban.

Several were murdered because of their professional work. All of these actions are forbidden by statutes and the Afghan constitution, yet they occur with terrible regularity. Tim's arrest is a warning that similar things could happen here, if ignored or dismissed.

In the past few days, several journalists were killed in Egypt, and today's Observer also detailed threats from officials against two women McClatchy reporters there.

This is a serious issue, and while, perhaps, journalists and publishers in the US feel safer than their counterparts in Afghanistan and Egypt, the problem, even in North Carolina, may be more severe than it appears in your story. Also, the remedy you seek may be woefully insufficient.

For example, noted journalist, Amy Goodman, editor of Democracy Now, and several of her reporting team were arrested at the 2008 RNC convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. They were roughly handled, slightly injured, and jailed for nine hours with no outside contact allowed. A judge dismissed all charges.

Goodman and her colleagues sued the local authorities, won the case, and were awarded $100,000 in damages. The judge ordered the police departments to institute a training course to instruct officers in first amendment rights, and how to legally treat journalists during demonstrations.

Perhaps Tim and The Observer should proceed in the same way.
It's amazing that your attorney, Wade Smith said only, "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." Nice, polite thought, but I watched the video several times, and Funk's arrest was personally conducted by Police Chief Jeff Weaver, who was fully informed of Funk's occupation, and blatantly ignored it in a peaceful, non-threatening situation.

Wade's second quote "(he) hopes in the future that they will realize a journalist has a very important role to play," sounds like kindergarten teacher sending a child to a corner for quiet time. If the Chief of Police acts like an ignorant rookie cop, he should be soundly disciplined or replaced. To ensure public trust, excessive and illegal police action must be called out and corrected.

You say you and the NCPA "stand ready to meet" with the legislature police. That's a good step, but sounds like a mighty weak response to the actions of people like Police Chief Weaver. I hope that you, Tim, and the Observer will take the same steps that Amy Goodman did to protect the First Amendment, and file a suit to protect you and all other NC journalists.

You must do more than write an article and "stand ready to meet." Those solutions did not go very far in Minneapolis, as the judge there plainly agreed, with his financial penalty and instructional orders.

Too many Americans are so frightened of dissent that they happily forfeit their constitutional right of free speech and a free press. We should not allow Taliban-like tactics in the Legislature's police.

Anonymous said...

Hard to believe some of the comments about this story of injustice. Just because others who left comments are against the protestors does not mean the reporter should be arrested. Anonymous "claptrap" probably would have been upset if the reporter was covering a story on 2nd amendment rights rather then 1st amendment.

Anonymous said...

This is a main component of the GOP battle plan for taking over NC and the rest of America - suppress the vote, suppress the press, or at least only let the press report positive stories on the GOP. No criticism at all.
Better watch out Rick Thames, the GOP Gestapo will be coming for you soon too.

Anonymous said...

This is really simple - if you do not follow a police officers instructions you are going to get arrested. The Chief did not say "everyone except the media needs to disperse", he said disperse. What is so difficult to understand about this? With only a few police officers and a large crowd of people, things can get out of control (and dangerous) in a hurry.

While you might not always agree with what a police officer says, not following instructions WILL get you arrested. Besides, I thought getting arrested was somw sort of 'Baadge of Honor' for you media types?

Archiguy said...

All of the comments disparaging the reporter for "failing to disperse" are shocking, but conservative rationalizations for undemocratic actions - like, say, limiting the right to vote - are sadly unsurprising, and they're proliferating as the Right-Wing-Echo-Chamber expands its tentacled reach. An uniformed electorate is a GOP strategist's dream.

Here's the jist of it, oh you Defenders of the Political Right Wing: The Observer reporter wasn't part of the protest, he was just there covering it. Only the protesters were ordered to disperse, and that order did NOT apply to a journalist who was there just doing his job, and who wasn't causing any trouble. Do you really not understand that?

As someone else said, if these protesters were there in support of the Second Amendment - the only one most Republicans care about these days - and the same thing had happened to a reporter from, say FOX News covering the event, their comments would be entirely different. Hypocrisy - right-wingers just can't seem to get through a day without it.

Archiguy said...

*sigh* Let's try this again...

Can we agree that the protesters were NOT going to disperse, that being arrested was part of why they were there in the first place? This was a well choreographed dance between the protesters and the police. There was going to be no violence, and everybody knew their roles. Everyone except Chief Weaver, obviously.

If Mr. Funk had in fact "complied" with the order and dispersed himself, and only himself, right out of the room, and the arrests had happened just as they were scripted to, how then could he have observed and reported on what happened? How could he then have done the job he was sent there to do? IF HE WASN'T THERE!?

NOW do you get it? Try reading the story again. Or, for some of you, for the first time. And try to think it through this time. Please. It doesn't hurt.

BiBr said...

Too often the liberal press thinks its above the law. When told to disperse, this meant Tim Funk as well. Besides, I am certain that if a republican reporter had been arrested while watching a small crowd harass a democrat governor the CO would have found this action to be morally justifiable.

Anonymous said...

Shocking!! Unbelievable!! I'm talking about some of these comments. Mr. Funk was there doing his job, not protesting the legislature. When the police officers ordered people to disperse they were talking to the people who were disrupting the legislature, protesters. I'm not sure how some of you don't understand that. One comment said "An order to disperse means just that, it doesn't mean "disperse unless you are a reporter, then you don't have to." Well in this case, it does mean just that. The police did not care about people being in there. They only cared that the legislature was being disrupted by protesters and wanted them to disperse to stop the disruption. Further evidence was the statement from the D.A in Wake County when he said "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". Meaning Funk should have not have been arrested because he was working, not protesting. The D.A. dismissed charges against Funk because Funk was there working, not protesting. How do you guys not understand the difference? It is ok if you don't agree with what the protest is about, I completely understand that. Taking away Mr Funk's First Amendment right I do not understand. I bet if he was a reporter from Fox News you would be calling for the dismantling of the General Assembly Police, wanting to the officers fired, and a public apology from anyone who you thought leaned left.

Anonymous said...


Archiguy, let's try this again.

You need to WATCH THE VIDEO! The chief did not say "protesters disperse", he told everyone to disperse. Furthermore, the police did not single-out Mr. Funk - the video clearly shows the police arresting other people.

Were the protesters there to get arrested? Probably, as the video did not show any of them complying with the chief's order. However, Mr. Funk did not comply either and therefore should have been arrested just like everyone else.

NOW do you get it? Try watching the video. Or, for some of you, for the first time. And try to think it through this time. Please. It might hurt a little to admit that Mr. Funk, while a reporter, enjoys no special privleges that the rest of us do not when it comes to complying with an order from the police.

Anonymous said...

Aug 18, 12:49 - Really? The GOP is suppressing the media? Do you conveniently forget about the AP wiretaps and Eric Holder's Justice Department going after James Rosen?

Take off your liberal colored glasses.

Matt said...

The US Constitution is slowly eroding. Especially here in Las Vegas you feel the effects. I feel like a conservative stuck in the "Night of the Living Dead" house while all the lib zombies are gathering outside to overwhelm me.