Boston authorities should not have blocked media from covering protest

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 19: A small crowd gathered for the Free Speech rally at Boston Common as thousands of counter protesters surround the park on Saturday, August 19, 2017, in Boston, MA. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While plenty of media commentators and politicians lauded the efforts of Boston politicians and the Boston Police Department to keep the peace Saturday during an extreme-right-wing rally and massive counter protests, they failed at protecting the media’s right to cover a newsworthy event.

Reporters were not able to actually cover the program of the event because authorities enforced a barrier of up to 50 yards around the speakers’ platform, preventing reporters from entering. Journalists were blocked from witnessing and reporting on the very reason for the massive crowds. The precautions ostensibly were designed for public safety—to keep those participating in the protest and counter protests apart from one another—but statements from law enforcement suggest the nature of the rally played a role.

At minimum, the city should have provided for a limited number of reporters to access the event, which was held in a public place. Instead, police acted as a sort of private door guard for the protest organizers, blocking access to all but a handful of people supporters vouched for at the gates. A group of about 20 people, including white-nationalist and neo-Nazi speakers, took part in the so-called “Free Speech” rally.

Yells of, “We can’t hear you,” rang out from both sides of protesters as the program began.

The scene reminded WBUR reporter Bruce Gellerman of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s “Plea for Free Speech,” given in 1860 in response to the Boston Mayor and police department suppressing a group of abolitionists honoring John Brown. Douglass argued, of free speech: “Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

As Gellerman put it, “That speech could have been written Saturday morning at the rally.” The authorities should have allowed the press and public the ability to listen and report, he argues. It’s a position both the “free speech” protesters and anti-racist counter protesters say they agree with in interviews with CJR.

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The Boston Police Department was responsible for keeping media away from the protesters, but no department spokespeople would return calls or emails from CJR to discuss where the order originated. The department on Friday issued a statement: “There will be NO designated media staging area inside the Common,” it noted. “Media Members are expected to remain mobile and refrain from long term stationary reporting which may incite and attract participants. NO media personnel will be allowed inside the barricaded area around the Bandstand.”

The City of Boston acknowledged that the rally, and its counter protests, were of significant public interest by issuing statements saying that bigotry and racism have no place in Boston, particularly after the events of Charlottesville. And its police strategy appears to have been designed to limit the exposure of hate speech.

The Mayor’s office referred all questions about the rally to the Boston Police Department, but Mayor Walsh in an interview with WCVB’s Janet Wu on Sunday said the barrier was put up for everyone’s protection, and laid blame on the event organizers for not bringing a sound system.

He said, “An article in the Globe today said ‘well we couldn’t hear.’ Well, that’s not my issue….That article, I was disappointed in it quite honestly, because yesterday was about making sure people were safe.” Walsh said that he discouraged people from coming to the Common because “why give attention to people spewing hate.”

“The WCVB interview does imply his office was involved with the decision,” says Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “While police are given significant leeway to prevent violence, they can’t restrict speech based on its content.”

A police official also suggested in interviews that the decision on press access wasn’t solely about safety. In an interview with WBUR reporter Zeninjor Enwemeka, Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans said of letting in counter protesters, press, or even white-nationalist sympathizers, “We had a job to do. We did a great job. I’m not going to listen to people who come in here and want to talk about hate. And you know what? If they didn’t get in, that’s a good thing because their message isn’t what we want to hear.”

The poor handling of press access was one issue both protesters and counter protesters could agree on. John Medlar, a spokesman for the group Boston Free Speech, posted on Facebook, “Sadly press and supporters were blocked from entering so ‘fake news’ now says no one showed up. Had to livestream what speakers we could before they rushed us out. This has only proven my point: There is a massive cultural intolerance against dialogue in this country.”

“I asked [police] if the press was allowed in,” Gellerman says. “They ignored me. Another reporter next to me said no, and referred me to the Facebook page. It was frustrating, and denied me access to do my job.”

Gellerman photographed a “Free Speech” supporter surrounded by counter protesters, and tells CJR the buffer zone created a “dangerous situation” for protesters, journalists, and speakers alike. He was concerned for reporters because of a toxic national dialogue against journalists, and noted he was anxious even wearing a hat or shirt with the WBUR logo.

“I thought the police did a good job under difficult circumstances, but their failure to allow press access to the bandstand was an exception to that,” says Dan Kennedy, an associate professor at Northeastern University School of Journalism who was covering the counter protesters heading toward the Boston Common for WGBH.

The setup may have violated the First Amendment, says Matthew Segal, legal director at ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts, in an interview. “In light of last week’s horrible violence in Charlottesville, we were not surprised that the police sought to create space between the groups that came out to express themselves,” he says. “But if the city or the police department chose the size of that buffer zone in part to keep speakers from being heard, and if they prohibited journalists from entering it, then they may have violated the First Amendment.”

In a statement to CJR, Boston Globe Editor in Chief Brian McGrory added:

First, it’s important to commend Boston PD for keeping peace under trying circumstances. They had a thoughtful plan and no tolerance for the kind of hijinks that could easily escalate.

That said, we’re frustrated over our inability to gain access to the free speech rally, such as it was. On paper, the buffer zone did not appear onerous, but it was in reality when you factor in the lack of any sound system.

What we lost was our ability to put the massive counter-protest into its fullest possible context by accurately reporting — but in no way amplifying — the possibly hateful thoughts that were being spoken or spewed by the free speech group.

Knowing what we do now, we would strongly advocate for future remedies, including close-up pool coverage of all aspects of the event. We will reach out to law enforcement to achieve this, with the belief that better access would in no way hamper police from the strong work they did in keeping people safe.

Some reporters thought officials could have met the press halfway.

“This isn’t the first time a potentially volatile event has come to Boston,” says Shawn Musgrave, a local reporter who was freelancing for Politico. “The police train for these kinds of things. They didn’t give access to credentialed reporters even. I don’t think maintaining public safety required keeping all reporters 30 to 40 yards away.”

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Sarah Betancourt is a Boston-based reporter who focuses on public policy writing. She is a former fellow of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @sweetadelinevt.